Last month, I attended an event co-hosted by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters at which Governor Terry McAuliffe formally unveiled the 2014 Virginia Energy Plan. The plan (461 pages in length) focuses on four goals, one of which is diversifying Virginia’s economy by strategically growing the energy sector.
The Governor, as well as several other speakers at the event, highlighted the importance of natural gas to the Commonwealth’s economy. There was also a discussion about the need to increase Virginia’s use of renewable energy, particularly wind and solar. Governor McAuliffe even stated at one point that he wanted Virginia to be an East Coast hub for wind energy, both in generation and manufacturing of windmill components.
As a Virginian, I support a diverse energy portfolio (to be clear, energy policies shouldn’t pick winners and losers or subsidize certain resources—that should be up to the market, but that is another blog entry). The issue is that those who were outside protesting the Atlantic Coast pipeline (and those who were wearing anti-Keystone XL pipeline paraphernalia) and claiming fossil fuels are “so last century,” are simply ignoring the facts.
It is time for a reality check: If you want more solar and wind power, then you have to have access to the materials needed to manufacture them. And those materials are made with petrochemicals… which are derived from fossil fuels!
Let’s start with wind. Modern wind turbine blades are made with a variety of petrochemical-based materials. These include: thermoset resins such as epoxy and vinyl esters; carbon fiber (polyacrylonitrile); core structural foam materials such as polyvinylchloride (a.k.a. PVC); styrene-acrylonitrile (SAN); and bonding adhesives such as epoxy and polyurethane. According to a study by TPI Composites, blades 29 to 50 meters long weighing 10,000 to 20,000 pounds each contain 4,500 to 9,000 pounds of petrochemical-derived products. That means that nearly 45% of a modern wind turbine is made from petrochemical-based materials.
Now, let’s take a look at solar voltaic cells. Petrochemicals are critical to the generation of solar energy. First, solar glazing materials act as a collector of solar energy and channel the energy to the photovoltaic cells. These cells, glazing and connectors to the batteries are all encased in petrochemical-based materials, which form solar modules. And the application of various petrochemicals are critical to advances in solar technology.
So, while there are those who continue to vilify the use of fossil fuels, the fact is that those who want to see additional advances in renewable technology must recognize that this simply will not happen without petrochemicals.