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The Green Fail

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The editors at Master of Engineering Degrees decided to research the topic of

The Green Fail

Take a look at green alternatives from the other side: the downside. Are these growing pains, or signs of a failing movement?


[A] Princeton study points out, clearing previously untouched land to grow biofuel crops releases long-sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. While planting corn and sugar cane in already tilled land is fine, a problem arises when farmers churn up new land to grow more fuel or the food and feed displaced by biofuel crops.

converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia and the United States creates a 'biofuel carbon debt' by releasing 17 to 420 times more carbon dioxide than the fossil fuels they replace.

Row crops such as corn and soy cause 50 times more soil erosion than sod crops [e.g., hay].

The government has studied the effect of growing continuous corn, and found it increases eutrophication by 189%, global warming by 71%, and acidification by 6%.

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

The toxic waste from the mercury and the problems of disposal are going to outweigh the saved energy.

The total number of CFLs in use globally nearly doubled between 2001 and 2003 alone, growing from an estimated 1.8 billion to 3.5 billion units.

Most CFLs contain 3-5 mg per bulb, with the bulbs labeled 'eco-friendly' containing as little as 1 mg.Because mercury is poisonous, even these small amounts are a concern for landfills and waste incinerators where the mercury from lamps may be released and contribute to air and water pollution.

A little simple math shows that 3.5 billion units in circulation at 5mg of mercury per unit is 17,500,000,000 mg. We are fast approaching the point where many of these compact fluorescent bulbs are going to need replacement. Once those 3.5 billion bulbs are dead, a metric to pound converter shows us that 17500000000mg = 38580lb 14.3350oz ( of toxic waste from the mercury. This can have a significant environmental impact as there is not very much regulation for the disposal of the bulbs and recycling them is inconvenient.


Some geoengineering approaches aim to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, through natural or mechanical means. Ocean fertilization, where iron dust is dumped into the open ocean to trigger algal blooms; genetic modification of crops to increase biotic carbon uptake; carbon capture and storage techniques such as those proposed to outfit coal plants; and planting forests are such examples. Other schemes involve blocking or reflecting incoming solar radiation, for example by spraying seawater hundreds of meters into the air to seed the formation of stratocumulus clouds over the subtropical ocean.

If humans adopted geoengineering as a solution to global warming, with no restriction on continued carbon emissions, the ocean would continue to become more acidic, because about half of all excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is removed by ocean uptake.

Jay Gulledge, an ecologist specializing in the carbon cycle at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, points out that if geoengineering efforts produce negative effects "there's no guarantee that the climate will just switch back."

"Anyone who says that geoengineering offers a policy solution to climate change is decades ahead of the science," Gulledge says. "And that's not a safe place to be."

Beaming Solar Electricity to Earth from Space

This plan isn't feasible right now, but in the long run as experimentation with other types of beam than microwave (such as laser) yield more viable possibilities.

They [NASA] and other government agencies estimate the cost of electricity supplied from an orbiting solar array could be around $1 billion per megawatt, which is too expensive to be commercially viable.

Because diffractive beam spreading requires large antennas at microwave frequencies, it would be virtually impossible to launch a microwave beamer large enough for efficient space-to-Earth power transfer without expensive multiple launches and in-space assembly.

The Green Jobs Debacle

The 2009 stimulus directed around $90 billion toward green initiatives, including loan guarantees for green energy firms, money to weatherize homes, green jobs training grants, and many other projects.

In an audit released in September, the Department of Labor's inspector general found that a $500 million program for training people with so-called green skills has so far produced only 1,336 jobs that have lasted over 6 months, with $163 million already spent. This amounts to $121,856 per successful green trainee.

The Obama administration had an idea that would solve the jobs crisis and our environmental woes in one fell swoop. They gave loans and grants to green energy and research companies in order to move the market forward and enable the companies to hire more employees.

- SunPower, after receiving $1.5 billion from DOE, is reorganizing, cutting jobs.
- First Solar, after receiving $1.46 billion from DOE, is reorganizing, cutting jobs.
- Solyndra, after receiving $535 million from DOE, filed for bankruptcy protection.
- Ener1, after receiving $118.5 million from DOE, filed for bankruptcy protection.
- Evergreen Solar, after receiving millions of dollars from the state of Massachusetts, filed for bankruptcy protection.
- SpectraWatt, backed by Intel and Goldman Sachs, filed for bankruptcy protection.
- Beacon Power, after receiving $43 million from DOE, filed for bankruptcy protection.
- Abound Solar, after receiving $400 million from DOE, filed for bankruptcy protection.
- Amonix, after receiving $5.9 million from DOE, filed for bankruptcy protection.
- Babcock & Brown (an Australian company), after receiving $178 million from DOE, filed for bankruptcy protection.
- A123 Systems, after receiving $279 million from DOE, shipped some bad batteries and is barely operating. It cut jobs.
- Solar Trust for America, after receiving a $2.1-billion loan guarantee from DOE, filed for bankruptcy protection.
- Nevada Geothermal, after receiving $98.5 million from DOE, warns of potential defaults in new SEC filings.

Results of Other Green Subsidies

General Motors: The bailout that General Motors received from the government came with a price: The carmaker was tasked to create the ultimate green vehicle. The result - the Chevy Volt - is a product with an exorbitant price tag that nobody wants to buy. Despite vast government subsidies, GM only sold 3,200 cars in the first eight months since the electric plug-in vehicles hit the marketplace.

Seattle Weatherizing Project: The city of Seattle received $20 million in federal stimulus money to help homeowners make their houses more energy-efficient. Some 16 months later, 14 jobs were created and three homes were weatherized. Most of the money went to a company to train workers to weatherize buildings, but the lack of demand for the service meant those trainees had no work to do.