The Dirty Extractive Underbelly of Clean Energy

Greens advocating a clean energy “revolution” rarely pause to consider the enormous increase in mining activity which would have to occur to support their new green economy.

The Limits of Clean Energy
If the world isn’t careful, renewable energy could become as destructive as fossil fuels.

BY JASON HICKEL | SEPTEMBER 6, 2019, 8:51 AM

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.

Read more: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/06/the-path-to-clean-energy-will-be-very-dirty-climate-change-renewables/

I suspect the reason people don’t grasp the scale of the effort which would be required to go renewable, is that very few people are aware of how much electricity modern living consumes.

FP goes on to suggest people really need to reduce energy consumption; but how practical is that? There really aren’t that many opportunities to reduce energy consumption without significantly impacting our quality of life. All the things we take for granted, laptops, phones, big TVs, home heating, affordable clothes, are the products of a high energy civilisation.

If you ever take a flight in a light aircraft, one of the first things you notice is how many high voltage power lines are visible on aeronautical maps, and how visible they are from low altitude (see the image at the top of the page). Long lines snaking through the wilderness, leading from cities and towns to enormous power stations which dominate the landscape, usually in remote places far away from the cities whose energy needs they supply. Great landmarks, all very visible from the air. But from the ground you just can’t see the sheer scale of our fossil fuel energy infrastructure unless you go and look for it.

If more people took the trouble to have a look for themselves, to see what it takes to provide us with the electricity we take for granted, I suspect they would understand why the green energy “revolution” has not happened yet, and why it likely never will.

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