“Green” is such a coveted label that we’re seeing the term green applied to technologies and products that are not actually green. That’s called green-washing. This also raises the question: what is green technology? We’ll provide a high level overview before providing examples of real green technology.
What Counts As Green Technology?
Green technology refers to any technology intended to reduce the impact of humans on the environment. This can include technologies that reduce resource usage as well as incorporate renewable resources. It also includes technology that reverses damage to the environment, though there are few products that fall into this category. Soil remediation methods and carbon sequestration technology would count. Let’s look at a few examples of green technology.
Solar panels are one of the most popular types of green technology. They may be small solar panels on an RV to provide power when dry camping or solar panels on top of one’s home to reduce your energy bill. Solar panels are more common than solar concentrators because they are passive devices, and solar concentrators have the nasty side effect of frying migratory birds. Solar concentrators also require a lot of space and cost more money than solar panels. Their only upside is that the super-heated column of salt inside many designs provides heat that generates steam, driving turbines through the night. With solar panels, you don’t have power when the sun goes down unless you managed to charge up the batteries during the day.
Wind turbines are often named along with solar panels as the gold standard of green technology. Wind turbines can be installed in areas where solar panels aren’t effective, due to low levels of solar radiation. They may run day and night. The land underneath can still be used for farming and ranching. There are downsides to wind turbines. They have a limited operational life, and wind turbine blades are rarely recyclable. Wind turbines don’t generate power when wind speeds are too high or too low.
Solar heating is less well known but a commonly used green technology. When you put a solar cover on your pool to heat it or keep it warm without relying on electricity, you’re reducing energy usage. Solar hot water heaters use the sun’s energy to heat up water without relying on electricity or natural gas. Greenhouses traditionally relied on solar heating, too. That’s the origin of the term greenhouse effect.
Recycling involves reusing the material in some way, so that you don’t have to rely on new sources of the material to meet demand. The most commonly recycled materials include aluminum, steel, plastic and paper. In the case of aluminum, you use less than a tenth of the energy recycling the metal as is required to remove it from bauxite. We’re increasingly seeing rare earth minerals recycled. These are used in cell phones and other high-end electronics. China is the major source of these minerals, and trade wars and their own restrictive manufacturing rules limit access to this critical material for the rest of the world. The most successful such recycling program is found in Japan. They pioneered the recycling of rare earth metals used in fluorescent lights, too. Recycling can include incineration. Burning waste wood, paper and plastic is not ideal, but it can generate power when the alternative is burning coal or oil; the latter are limited resources.