Efforts to Ban Silicone Hamper Energy and Environmental Goals

Efforts to Ban Silicone Hamper Energy and Environmental Goals
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

The U.S. energy sector is constantly developing ways to generate energy more efficiently and minimize environmental impact. At the forefront of this innovation is a family of tough, versatile compounds known as silicones.

Silicones play a key role in the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity throughout the United States, from mountaintop wind turbines and rooftop solar panels to gas pipelines and oil drilling rigs miles offshore. The U.S. energy sector uses millions of pounds of silicone each year.

While silicone’s applications in the energy industry are too numerous to count, it is worth highlighting some of the most important contributions. Silicone is a key component of both wind turbines and solar panels, which generate enough electricity in the U.S. to power more than 25 million homes. In fact, about 90 percent of solar panels have at least some silicone components, which act as lubricants, sealants, coatings, and insulators. Silicone compounds are also used to bond wind turbines’ rotor blades and lubricate rotating machinery, enhancing performance and allowing them to operate in even the harshest weather conditions.

In addition to helping the renewable energy sector flourish in the U.S. and around the world, silicone is also used in fossil fuel-based energy generation. For example, silicone antifoams improve extraction rates and facilitate oil refining processes, increasing efficiency and cutting water usage. Silicone is also widely used in wells, rigs, and pipelines to prevent leakage and protect equipment to reduce maintenance costs.

But it is not just energy generation. Silicones help to save energy in smaller ways too. LED light bulbs, which contain silicone, use about 90 percent less energy (and last 25 times longer) than incandescent lighting. In a decade, widespread use of LEDs could save about 350 terawatt hours of electricity, or the equivalent annual output of 40-45 large power plants, while also generating more than $30 billion in savings for consumers.

Silicone also has a profound indirect impact on Americans’ energy use by increasing the durability of a host of products and structures, ranging from transportation systems to buildings. One estimate suggests that every one ton of carbon dioxide emitted in the production and disposal of silicone materials prevents 9 tons from being emitted in other ways, thanks to the efficiency silicone delivers.

Unfortunately, regulators in the European Union have recently taken steps to restrict the use of silicone on the basis that it poses a risk to the environment. These measures are grounded in an incomplete evaluation of the scientific evidence, however, and an over-reliance on computer modeling that is more likely to yield harmful results than real-world field tests.

This is a prime example of the EU’s overly sensitive regulatory philosophy that fails to consider adequately the probability of actual harm. Further, EU regulators pursuing product restrictions have failed to demonstrate any environmental benefit from such regulations. By contrast, several countries, including Canada and Australia, have  closely examined the public health and environmental implications of silicone use and concluded that its associated risks are so tiny as to warrant no marketplace restrictions.

Policymakers considering restrictions on silicone materials should use the “weight of evidence” assessment employed in both Canada and Australia, considering silicone’s potential risks against proven benefits. In the energy sector alone, silicone’s value to consumers and the environment is substantial.

Regulating silicone materials without credible and complete scientific evidence would be a huge mistake. It will slow the global goal to install more sustainable energy technologies that reduce emissions and protect the environment. 

Liam Sigaud writes for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org.

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