This is a great article that points out the downsides of renewables, and how we are trading one problem for another.
The Limits of Clean Energy
If the world isn’t careful, renewable energy could become as destructive as fossil fuels.
SEPTEMBER 6, 2019 | JASON HICKEL | foreignpolicy.com
The conversation about climate change has been blazing ahead in recent months. Propelled by the school climate strikes and social movements like Extinction Rebellion, a number of governments have declared a climate emergency, and progressive political parties are making plans—at last—for a rapid transition to clean energy under the banner of the Green New Deal.
The transition to renewables is going to require a dramatic increase in the extraction of metals and rare-earth minerals, with real ecological and social costs.
We need a rapid transition to renewables, yes—but scientists warn that we can’t keep growing energy use at existing rates. No energy is innocent. The only truly clean energy is less energy.
In 2017, the World Bank released a little-noticed report that offered the first comprehensive look at this question. It models the increase in material extraction that would be required to build enough solar and wind utilities to produce an annual output of about 7 terawatts of electricity by 2050. That’s enough to power roughly half of the global economy. By doubling the World Bank figures, we can estimate what it will take to get all the way to zero emissions—and the results are staggering: 34 million metric tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead, 50 million tons of zinc, 162 million tons of aluminum, and no less than 4.8 billion tons of iron.
In some cases, the transition to renewables will require a massive increase over existing levels of extraction. For neodymium—an essential element in wind turbines—extraction will need to rise by nearly 35 percent over current levels. Higher-end estimates reported by the World Bank suggest it could double.
The same is true of silver, which is critical to solar panels. Silver extraction will go up 38 percent and perhaps as much as 105 percent. Demand for indium, also essential to solar technology, will more than triple and could end up skyrocketing by 920 percent.
And then there are all the batteries we’re going to need for power storage. To keep energy flowing when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing will require enormous batteries at the grid level. This means 40 million tons of lithium—an eye-watering 2,700 percent increase over current levels of extraction.
That’s just for electricity. We also need to think about vehicles. This year, a group of leading British scientists submitted a letter to the U.K. Committee on Climate Change outlining their concerns about the ecological impact of electric cars. They agree, of course, that we need to end the sale and use of combustion engines. But they pointed out that unless consumption habits change, replacing the world’s projected fleet of 2 billion vehicles is going to require an explosive increase in mining: Global annual extraction of neodymium and dysprosium will go up by another 70 percent, annual extraction of copper will need to more than double, and cobalt will need to increase by a factor of almost four—all for the entire period from now to 2050.
The problem here is not that we’re going to run out of key minerals—although that may indeed become a concern. The real issue is that this will exacerbate an already existing crisis of over-extraction. Mining has become one of the biggest single drivers of deforestation, ecosystem collapse, and biodiversity loss around the world. Ecologists estimate that even at present rates of global material use, we are overshooting sustainable levels by 82 percent.