This year, the clean energy sector has finally started to seriously tackle one of its biggest challenges: how to get enough minerals to build solar panels, wind turbines and large batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage. Understanding this will be essential to escape the ecological catastrophe of fossil fuels. It will also be crucial for policymakers and industry to move forward without throwing some communities under the bus in the clean energy transition.
Instead of traversing landscapes with oil and gas wells and pipelines, clean energy industries and their suppliers will open up Earth to search for essential minerals like lithium, cobalt, and copper. Compared to a gas-fired power station, an onshore wind turbine requires nine times more mineral resources, according to the International Energy Agency. Building an EV requires six times more minerals than a gasoline car.
It is high time to consider what this mineral hunger could cause, given the recent surge in commitments by countries and companies to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions. Digging up the necessary minerals is already proving to be a minefield. Protests erupt over proposed mines that no one really wants in their backyard. The conflicts that arose in 2021 are just the beginning of a difficult road to travel.
In May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued a warning: the world is not sufficiently exploiting the minerals that are the building blocks of a clean energy future. And the supply chains of many essential minerals are vulnerable, according to the IEA report. “If left unaddressed, these potential vulnerabilities could slow down and increase the costs of global progress towards a clean energy future – and thus hamper international efforts to tackle climate change,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the AIE, in a press release at the time. “This is what energy security looks like in the 21st century. “
Cobalt used in electric vehicle batteries, for example, is mainly comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The majority of the world’s rare earth minerals, used in EV motors and wind turbines, are produced and processed in China. So if something disrupts production in these countries, the whole world could feel the effects. In addition to this, the concentration of power over vital resources in specific countries and companies creates the potential for human and environmental rights violations, which have plagued supply chains for cobalt and rare earth minerals. Surveys in cobalt mines, which are critical suppliers to the electric vehicle battery industry, have already seen widespread labor abuse.
To complicate matters, the COVID-19 pandemic has put even more pressure on clean energy supply chains. Rising prices for shipping and raw materials could delay or even cancel solar projects planned for 2022, according to research firm Rystad Energy. Soaring metal prices could slow the entire transition to renewables throughout the decade, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Either way, Joe Biden pledged the United States to halve its emissions from this decade’s highest levels. Longer term, he is pushing for a clean energy grid by 2035 and zero net emissions by 2050. In order to meet these goals, the United States will need large amounts of minerals, that is. why the Biden administration has made securing them a priority since it took effect. in post this year. In June, Biden had announcement a “whole-of-government” effort to strengthen national supply chains, with a focus on critical minerals and advanced batteries used for renewables and electric vehicles. According to the administration, national supply chains can help the United States rid itself of dirty fossil fuels, while minimizing its dependence on mining in other countries, especially where the labor abuse is a big problem.
But even in the United States, clean energy mining can have costs, and it already appears that Native Americans and other marginalized groups could bear a disproportionate burden of those costs. High-level wrestling builds up in Nevada Thacker pass, the site of the country’s largest lithium resource. If a proposed lithium mine advances, it will unearth a potential grave that is sacred to members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribes and other local tribes. Residents are also worry on how the mine could harm wildlife and use water in a state with historic drought. The Nez Perce tribe in Idaho faces the prospect of a new mining project tearing their landscape apart to produce gold, a key ingredient for many electronic devices, and antimony, which could be used in futuristic batteries. Then there is the proposed copper mine at Oak Flat in Arizona which desecrate sacred lands for members of the Apache Nation of San Carlos and other indigenous peoples in the region. Copper is widely used in the grid and for solar and wind energy technologies.
Around the world, the race is on to find new sources of the minerals needed for clean energy. Mining companies are now eyeing patches of the seabed that contain polymetallic nodules rich in cobalt, rare earth elements and other metals. While the companies argue that seabed mining is a way to avoid polluting communities near landmines, their eagerness to bring heavy industry into a largely unexplored environment has alarmed hundreds of marine scientists, who published a declaration in September, declaring that such activity could irreparably harm deep-sea ecosystems. Despite their concerns, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which oversees activities on the high seas, appears in balance pass new rules that could open the oceans of the world for deep sea mining after meeting earlier this month.
There are ways to get the minerals the clean energy revolution needs while minimizing the impact on people and the planet. Startups are looking to improve recycling of lithium batteries. Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to create millions of clean energy jobs while standing up for the right of workers to organize, which could offer workers at US mines more protections. Tribes have the right to “free, prior and informed consent” to any project that could affect them or their territories, under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We can also increase energy efficiency, use public transport more and consume less.
As renewables begin to overtake fossil fuels, they will need to avoid the ways in which coal, oil and gas have bulldozed communities at the expense of people and the environment. And if policymakers can chart the course for a just transition to renewables, they may be able to heal more than the damage our demand for energy has inflicted on the climate.
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