Across the country, liberal college students continue to protest for their university endowments to be divested from fossil fuels. Shockingly, last month Stanford University folded to public pressure and agreed to slowly divest their 18 billion dollar self-invested endowment from coal over the coming months.
Even before students began protesting for campus sustainability around the nation, 677 colleges signed The American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, publicly declaring intent to pursue carbon neutrality. Unsurprisingly, neutrality has thus far seldom been achieved due to the prohibitive costs of renewable energy sources.
The hypocrisy in activist student movements calling for fossil fuel divestment and solar energy is unfortunate. Radical, self proclaimed, earth-friendly students are completely oblivious to the costly, inefficient, and frankly very messy realities of the solar industry. Solar panel production involves mining of rare earth metals, mostly Yttrium, Cerium, Promethium and Neodymium, through chemical processes that involve the release of several potent toxins into the environment. This process is so dirty that the U.S. has neglected to extract known deposits of these elements, leaving China, with its infamously subpar environmental standards, to refine 90 percent of the global supply.
Interestingly, there appears to be no protest by the educated elite over the millions of pounds of toxic sludge and water produced through precious metal extraction. Perhaps the lack of passion among students for lambasting the precious metal mining industry has to do with the fact that the same metals used for solar panels are quintessential in laptop and smart phone screens and batteries. After all, how could one tweet about the immorality of fossil fuels without an $800 iPhone, Macbook or iPod made with toxically extracted metals in hand?
Ironically, it is the increasing global demand for products like smart phones and tablets that is raising the price of precious metals, and therefore the price of solar panels.
As the raw materials in solar panels become more and more expensive, solar is becoming an increasingly unpractical and economically efficient energy source. And yet, colleges and universities around the United States- both public and private- continue to construct multi-million dollar solar farms in their pursuit of carbon neutrality.
Notably, at Skidmore College -a famously progressive institution in upstate New York where tuition, room, and board total around $55,000 per year- an 8-acre solar farm is expected to begin operation this summer.
While the idea of building a solar plant at Skidmore was dreamed up years ago, the project only became possible with a 2.35 million dollar grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
If students are truly so passionate about carbon neutrality and the expansion of solar power, maybe they should pick up the tab.
When government subsidizes the construction of solar farms, the cost-benefit realities of solar energy are further distorted in the minds of progressives. We need to allow the free market, not angsty college students and progressive pipe dreams, to determine the makeup of our energy strategy.