Progress towards fighting climate change and protecting the environment is often a case of taking one step forward followed by two steps back. It’s a curvy road to the ultimate end goal of a cleaner planet. That’s perhaps most visible in the actions and innovations of entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Musk is a complex individual and business person. His financial holdings are varied, estimated wealth difficult to wrap your head around and environmental impact a topic of much discussion. After all, he bores a tunnel through the ground, but then uses the removed dirt to make bricks for low-cost housing.
Furthermore, he ditched bitcoin as a Tesla payment option because it’s energy-consumptive. He also sold all his real estate holdings and moved into a tiny home instead. Then, he created a roofing material with built-in solar technology. Yet, he uses a private jet to get from here to there, producing a jet stream of CO2 in its wake. The guy appears to be a walking antithesis. So what’s the story?
Tesla changed the electric vehicle game
Obviously, Tesla’s success points to the consumer’s interest in doing what’s right for the environment. Considering vehicle emissions are one of the top contributors to air pollution. Greenhouse gasses contribute to global warming and replacing those gas-guzzling vehicles with quiet and emission-free electric cars is an obvious win for our lungs, as well as the lungs of the planet.
Since day one, however, climate deniers and environmentalists alike have been quick to criticize the impact of Tesla production. Primarily, this focuses on recyclability of the lithium-ion batteries used to power the electric vehicles. The technology has come a long way with Tesla reporting the batteries are now comprised of 90% recyclable materials.
Tesla isn’t as eco-friendly as we think?
Materials needed for the batteries are another point of contention. There are accusations of the poor treatment of Indigenous populations surrounding a lithium mine in Argentina. The lithium is a dirty source of graphite from China and cobalt mined under harsh conditions. Musk’s response is the supply chain is complicated and it’s difficult to unearth the exact location and process surrounding certain materials. However, the company is doing everything it can to ensure the material is ethically sourced. The company has also significantly cut back on the amount of cobalt in the batteries (reporting less than 3%), and stated they will produce cobalt-free batteries soon.
Then there’s the spotlight on acid leaching caused by the extraction of lithium. So Musk created his own lithium-production. Tesla bought land in Nevada, developed the process and applied for the patent on a new method of pulling lithium from clay to address the need in a more sustainable way.
Next on the Tesla-bashing list of crimes is the amount of power charging these cars pulls from the grid. While it’s true they do require an energy source to plug into, the real question becomes how that charging port is powered. For example, in West Virginia, where the power grid is still nearly 100% fed by coal, the charging station isn’t going to be very environmentally clean.
In contrast, California feeds the electrical grid with over 52% of renewable energy such as solar, geothermal, biomass, wind and hydroelectric. Since so much of the equation depends on the public grid, Tesla invested in its own solar production company. While the power generated doesn’t go directly into each Tesla, it does offset consumption in areas with less EV infrastructure in place.
SpaceX launched space tourism
While Tesla might be the first name that comes to mind in association with Elon Musk, it’s certainly not his only notable endeavor. SpaceX is the commercial space program developing a future for space travel.
However, even though the program receives an abundance of support, it’s not a business that would fall into the green design category. Rockets are bulky and resource consumptive to build, launch and dispose of. They also use copious amounts of fuel. And, the company does business on federally-protected lands.
In true Musk fashion, he’s considered each of these concerns. The mission for SpaceX was visualized in the Falcon spaceships. This out-of-this-world technology resulted in a reusable spaceship. Talk about recycling. The most expensive parts of the rocket can be sent into orbit again and again, carrying payloads and people.
This design reduces costs, waste and environmental impact. The spaceships rely on a fuel of methane (CH4) and liquid oxygen (LOX) or kerosene, which are both cleaner alternatives to the previously-used and toxic hypergolic propellant.
Furthermore, any area with huge industrial development will create an impact and Musk’s organizations are no exception. With Tesla’s first campus came promises for jobs along with issues related to commuting, campus waste and energy consumption. So when the team began developing the newest gigafactory in Sparks, NV, the focus quickly shifted to making it as energy-efficient as possible.
As a result, the battery, engine and product manufacturing will be 100% powered by renewable energy. For the biggest building of its kind on the planet, that’s a massive investment and a statement to Musk’s often-questioned dedication to putting the planet first.
SpaceX also caused significant damages to the environment
At exactly the same time, however, that commitment has to be questioned with the damaging effects of the SpaceX rocket launches in an ecologically-sensitive area of South Texas. Building rockets requires a lot of trial and error, so Musk bought a big chunk of remote land to play on. The problem is that it borders state and federal lands that have been set aside and protected for the sake of the unique biodiversity.
When Musk approached decision makers about setting up camp in their backyard, businesses and legislators saw dollar signs and economic opportunities for an area mostly known as a border town with the typical-related issues. But now that the company is established, urgent problems are quickly becoming more evident.
Failed rocket launches are literally littering the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Studies have shown a decrease in animal activity, including a significant decrease in nesting sites for the snowy plover, which is already threatened. Other wildlife like the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles and the endangered ocelot call the region home. In addition, the ecology includes tidal flats, beaches, grasslands and coastal dunes, all at risk from rocket debris and impact from increased activity in the region.
There’s no doubt Elon’s companies leave a footprint — on both sides of the environmental equation. The unanswered question is which way the scales tip the most.
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