All Green Energy Has ‘Brown Costs’: Former NASA Engineer

By Nina Nguyen
Nina Nguyen
Nina Nguyen
Nina Nguyen is a reporter based in Sydney. She covers Australian news with a focus on social, cultural, and identity issues. She is fluent in Vietnamese. Contact her at
February 3, 2023Updated: February 7, 2023

While renewables are often hailed as a clean source of energy, they have bleak social and environmental costs compared to nuclear and natural gas, says a former NASA engineer.

Paul Vallejo, who worked as an aerospace engineer at NASA for eight years, said, “even wind and solar aren’t really renewable because you’re taking silica sand out of the ground” to construct solar panels and mining “rare earth” minerals for the magnets for wind turbines, which are not truly renewable.

“Recycling of solar panels is currently not really terribly practical. Both solar panels and wind turbine blades go into the dump,” he told The Epoch Times.

Epoch Times Photo
Former NASA engineer Paul Vallejo said media reports on renewable energy often don’t cover the “brown costs” associated with it. (Courtesy of Paul Vallejo)

Vallejo also argued that the media coverage of energy tends to focus more on promoting a narrative than all the facts.

“You start with the story, and most modern news outlets fit facts and find experts to run the particular story that they want to run.”

He added, “they call green energy ‘green’ but ignore the mining that has to be done for that.”

“And that’s true for lithium, the amount of water you have to process in order to create the lithium, the terrible mining conditions for cobalt in the Congo, and for the silica and the rare earth mines in China.”

“All green energy has ‘brown costs,’” Vallejo noted. “And that’s true for other forms of energy as well.”

Epoch Times Photo
A worker displays 99.9% lithium inside the El Carmen Lithium processing plant of Chile’s SQM (Sociedad Quimica Minera) in Antofagasta, Chile, on September 13, 2022.(Photo by Martin Bernetti/ AFP)

Hidden Costs of Renewable Energy

Lithium is a metal used in rechargeable batteries that power electrical goods such as mobile phones, energy storage systems, and electric vehicles.

According to a report by Friends of the Earth (FoE), amid soaring demand for the mineral, the impact of mining activity has been “increasingly affecting communities where this harmful extraction takes place” including the surrounding soil and air.

The mining of cobalt, which is also used in lithium-ion batteries, has also been linked to child labour, corruption, and environmental pollution.

More than 40,000 children, some as young as six, are working in dangerous conditions in Congolese cobalt mines, according to UN agencies.

Epoch Times Photo
A general view of artisanal miners working at the Shabara artisanal mine near Kolwezi on October 12, 2022. (Photo by Junior Kannah/AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, silica dust exposure was the cause behind “substantially increased mortality among Chinese workers,” causing respiratory diseases and lung cancer, according to a 2012 study by Chinese researchers.

Silica is essential in the manufacturing of batteries, solar panels, and electric vehicles.

Currently, China is the biggest player in the rare earth market due to its loose environmental regulations, making up 85 percent of the global supply in 2016, followed by Australia, which accounts for just 10 percent.

A groundbreaking report from May 2021 titled “In Broad Daylight” revealed several solar manufacturers operating out of China had either been directly involved in Uyghur slave labour or sourced polysilicon—a primary material used in nearly all solar panels—from suppliers who were.

An investigation by The Epoch Times in April 2022, also uncovered that at least 60 percent of Australia’s biggest operating solar farms feature arrays of panels made by one of these companies.

Calls For Nuclear to Be Part of the Energy Mix

In Australia, as the country charges towards net zero by 2050, calls are growing for the government to lift the ban on nuclear energy, which Vallejo called a “handicap” in the country’s effort to move away from carbon-emitting sources.

“Nuclear is a really good power source and partly because of energy density,” he said.

“It’s orders of magnitude higher energy density than any other form of chemical or fossil fuel. So, I would argue that nuclear is probably one of the cleanest options you have, and it also isn’t an intermittent source.”

Czech nuclear reactor
Four of the cooling towers of the Dukovany nuclear power plant rise high above the natural surroundings of Dukovany, Czech Republic, on Sept. 27, 2011. (Petr David Josek/AP Photo)

Vallejo argued, “You can’t run a modern economy on a power source that has good days and bad days where you have blackouts on bad days.”

“It’s also not environmentally friendly to hamstring yourself from the only solution you could possibly use that isn’t a fossil fuel.”

He also noted that in terms of environmentally friendly power sources actually, natural gas is “quite a clean power source, as far as making less pollutants when you burn it.”

But the centre-left Australian Labor government has continued to shoot down attempts to remove the nuclear ban and instead banked on a wider roll-out of renewable energy sources costing the country billions.

Following the release of the October 2022 budget, federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers stood firm on the federal government’s move towards net-zero.

“Renewable energy is not just cleaner energy; it’s cheaper energy,” he told reporters on Oct. 25. “That’s understood right around the world. It’s also more reliable in the medium term and the long term when it comes to some of the geopolitical issues that we’re dealing with.”

This is despite electricity and gas prices continuing to soar and election pledges from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese that Labor’s Powering Australia plan would save households $275 per year (US$175.70).

Australians’ electricity bills are predicted to rise by another 56 percent over the next two years—according to budget estimates.

Daniel Khmelev and Daniel Y. Teng contributed to this report.