The unfortunate dirty truth about clean energy: part one

Jacqui van Heerden

Like many others I have been buoyed by the promise of electric and hybrid cars and solar energy as doing the right thing by the planet.

My research has led me to uncover something different. I read an article by Carlos Zorrillia, which I encourage you to read.

We believe that we can continue to consume if we plant more trees and increase our “green energy consumption” – electric vehicles, solar farms, big electric storage installations, and monster wind turbines.

Let’s ask ourselves how does this green energy work?

In his article Carlos presents the truth about the mining for those minerals in demand by the “green energy industry” for their particular properties.

Wind turbines, photovoltaic systems, electric cars, lithium-ion batteries, high voltage power lines and fuel cells all have one thing in common – enormous amounts of raw materials are consumed in their production, never mind the transportation and production costs.

The growing demand for these minerals and consequent high prices will have mining companies and opportunists seeking these minerals in areas that include ecologically fragile areas, indigenous occupied areas and politically unstable territories.

It is suggested that any local people occupying these sites identified by these mining companies will largely be forced to relocate with major disruptions to their connection to livelihood and land – these sites are not found in our cosy First World neighbourhoods.

Some of these minerals are becoming harder to extract. Mining leaves behind environmental and community destruction – around the world there are 32,000 toxic lakes left of contaminated sludge from mining operations.

According to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report, in order to “hit net-zero globally by 2050, [it] would require six times more mineral inputs in 2040 than today”.

The minerals considered by the IEA report are copper, nickel, cobalt and lithium, as well as graphite and rare earths. They are sometimes referred to as the “critical minerals.” It is the specific properties they contain that makes these metals so desirable.

How much land and minerals are required to transition to this so-called “green energy” and at what cost to our planet and people?

Around 67 tonnes of copper are required to produce a medium-sized offshore wind turbine. To extract this amount of copper, miners have to move almost 50,000 tons of earth and rock, around five times the weight of the Eiffel Tower. The ore is shredded, ground, watered and leached.

In a solar farm measuring 1000 by 1000 metres, there are 11 tonnes of silver. A single Tesla Model S contains as much lithium as around 10,000 mobile phones.

 

An electric car requires six times as many critical raw materials as a combustion engine – mainly copper, graphite, cobalt and nickel for the battery system. An onshore wind turbine contains around nine times as many as these substances as a gas-fired power plant of comparable capacity.

 

There is no doubt that electric cars produce much less carbon emissions than conventional cars and that is the important sales argument. According to the IEA, an internal combustion vehicle emits 40 tonnes of greenhouse gases over a life cycle of 200,000 kilometres, more than twice as much as an electric car, despite the CO2-intensive production of the battery.

Depending on the battery type, an electric car requires between 150 and 250 kilograms of special raw materials.

Carmakers are now pushing ahead with the expansion of their e-fleets, and competition has broken out among them over securing supplies of raw materials.

Many of these critical commodities come from a small group of countries. Indonesia and the Philippines (nickel), China supplies 60 per cent of rare earth metals. The Congo (cobalt) and South Africa dominates around 70 per cent of the platinum market.

Poverty, corruption, authoritarian governments, and violent conflict often afflict countries rich in natural resources.

In Guinea lies bauxite, a raw mineral for aluminium, important for wind turbines and powerlines. The inhabitants of a village of 700 people, Hamdallaye, stood in the way of this extraction and were relocated to land where they could no longer grow their own food due to the poor quality of that soil. Stripped of being able to provide their own livelihood they are now reliant on the partly state-owned Guinean mining company to support them.

Norway has managed to put its advantage of supply of resources to good use with its good governance and stability – this transfer of expertise could help countries like Guinea also benefit from the global commodities boom.

There are great hopes that the green technology can be used to help save the climate, but that rescue also entails stripping the planet of precious resources.

“It’s too short-sighted to think that all we have to do to protect the environment is to recreate the fossil-fueled world with electricity and swap the six-cylinder Jaguar for the battery-powered Tesla,” Mathis Wackernagel said, a resource researcher and one of the most influential figures in the environmental movement.

What will happen if we create an even bigger environmental crisis while trying to fix the climate crisis? And what can we do now to avoid that scenario?

Moving to a low energy future … part two. •

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