Report: Going 100% Renewable Power Means a Lot of Dirty Mining

Yves here. While some commentators have acknowledged that further buildout of renewable energy sources has other environmental costs, particularly in terms of using nasty to mine or refine materials like rare earths, there hasn’t been much systematic study of the tradeoffs. This report by the Institute for Sustainable Futures is a step in that direction.

By Naveena Sadasivam, a staff writer covering the environment, energy and climate change at The Texas Observer. Originally published at Grist

For more than a decade, indigenous communities in Alaska have been fighting to prevent the mining of copper and gold at Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and a crucial source of sustenance. The proposed mine, blocked under the Obama administration but inching forward under the Trump administration, has been billed by proponents as necessary to meet the growing demand for copper, which is used in wind turbines, batteries, and solar panels. Similar stories are playing out in Norway, where the Sámi community is fighting a copper mine, and in Papua New Guinea, where a company has been mining the seabed for gold and copper.

Weighing those trade-offs — between supporting mining in environmentally sensitive areas and sourcing metals needed to power renewables — is likely to become more common if countries continue generating more renewable energy. That’s according to a report out Wednesday from researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia. The report, commissioned by the environmental organization Earthworks, finds that demand for metals such as copper, lithium and cobalt would skyrocket if countries around the world try to get their electric grids and transportation systems fully powered by renewable energy by 2050. Consequently, a rush to meet that demand could lead to more mining in countries with lax environmental and safety regulations and weak protections for workers.

“If not managed responsibly, this has the potential for new adverse environmental and social impacts,” the report says.

The list of metals used in the production of renewable energy is long. It includes the well-known — copper, silver and aluminum — as well as rare earths such as neodymium and dysprosium, used to make magnets for wind turbines. Mining for these metals is currently concentrated in just a handful of countries: Democratic Republic of Congo, China, Chile, and India, among them.

Take cobalt. Each electric vehicle needs between five to ten kilograms of the bluish-white metal for its lithium-ion batteries. The authors consider cobalt a “metal of most concern for supply risks,” because nearly 60 percent of its production takes place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country with a dismal record of child labor and human rights abuses. Should the world’s transportation and electricity sectors ever switch to running entirely on renewables, demand for the metal would soar to more than four times the amount available in reserves, according to the researchers.

The report’s authors modelled one scenario in which they assumed 100-percent renewable energy use for electricity production and transportation — a key goal in keeping temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels — and no recycling of metals. In this case, they projected that demand for lithium and nickel would increase 280 percent and 136 percent, respectively. In another scenario, the researchers assumed a high rate of recycling and more efficient renewable technologies that require less metal. Demand for the two metals still surpassed existing reserves by 86 percent and 43 percent.

Payal Sampat, the mining director at Earthworks, said recycling and technological innovation could go a long way toward reducing the demand for rare metals, but cautioned that still more needs to be done. “We’re not going to tech fix our way out of this,” she said. “It’s going to require more meaningful policy changes that fundamentally reduce the overall demand.”

Still, Sampat said that if the renewables industry comes to understand the pitfalls that come with metals mining, companies may be more receptive to incorporating sustainable practices.

“This is a sector that is already in this space thinking here we are trying to save the world,” she said. “Our hope is that the renewable energy sector can be leaders in making those changes at an early stage so that the clean energy transition is truly clean, just and equitable.”

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86 comments

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, a fuller comparison is needed – many of these rare earths are required in electricity production full stop, no matter the source of energy. Gas CCGT turbines, for example, require rare earths and other obscure metals such as Rhenium for the turbine chambers and blades. The pressure chambers for the latest thermal plants require ultra hard steels which likewise require specialist alloys. And while EV’s need lots of cobal and lithium, modern combustion engines need lots of molybdenum and tungsten.

      So I’m not convinced that a focus on renewables means ‘more’ dirty mining, its more a case of a different type of dirty mining. Whether that’s good or bad, there seems little consensus. It has to be said though that there seems to be a lot of progress in making batteries that require less polluting materials by either going for solid state or inorganic electrolytes.

      Reply
      1. Olga

        I agree that a more comprehensive analysis is needed. Additionally, the article assumes a static world – in which no innovation happens. Clearly, that is a limited view – leading to a prognosis that is just not all that helpful. Sometimes I wonder why anyone bothers to write pieces like this – it’s as if Koch brothers were underwriting negative perceptions of renewable power.
        I would posit that if humanity committed itself to a new, brave world of renewable power – that act in itself would represent a major shift in consciousness, leading to – by choice or necessity – other important changes in the way we live (the west, in particular) and how we perceive our relationship with the mother Earth.
        In other words, if we were advanced enough to accept that our energy sources must change – we’d likely realise that much broader changes must take place, lest we devour this planet.
        And then, there is technological innovation. With resources diverted to support the proliferation of renewable power, new and better ways of such power functioning would be developed. Just in the last 20 years, we’ve been able to make great strides in how solar/wind/storage work – and that was against all odds. Imagine what we could do if the attention/resources were aimed at creating a truly sustainable life.

        Reply
        1. Oh

          Very superficial article with little or no thought to providing in depth info. It’s likely that Earthworks is a Koch Brothers enterprise masquerading as an environmental outfit.

          Crude oil has gone up more than four times its original price before the oil embargo orchestrated by the major oil producers and oil companies.

          Reply
        2. Ignacio

          We are still much in denial on the necessary changes needed in energy sources as well as many bad habits that came with fossil fuels. Renewables is just one leg and nothing comes without a cost included environmental. The Earthworks report devises the challenges of becoming 100% renewables with improvements in energy efficiency (necessary) and metal recycling (very necessary) but apparently it doesn’t address the need to reduce demand by changing habits and this is for me the main caveat of this study.

          There are wild differences on fossil fuel usage by countries. For instance KSA consumes about 40 tons of oil per capita in one extreme. Italy consumes 2.5 tons per capita, Spain 4.2, UK 2.8 TPC, US 6.8 TPC… (World Bank Data. Such differences indicate, if anything, how oil availability results in enormous “cultural” energy wastes. If these are not aknowledged and strategies to reduce energy waste are not devised it is impossible to reach the 100% renewable objective.

          Reply
      2. Cal2

        On a positive note;
        At least the mining of those does not create radioactive tailings, waste and the intractable problem of half billion year lasting waste like uranium and nuclear power production by- products.

        Anybody want to move to Hanford? Plenty of water and lots of land.

        Reply
  1. Jeff

    assumed 100-percent renewable energy use for electricity production and transportation … and no recycling of metals

    The huge need for copper, lithium, cobalt… is based on the assumption(s) that a/ we need to generate more energy and b/ we can keep our cars if they run on renewables.
    We know from the ’70s (‘Limits to Growth’) that those assumptions are false.
    Just to repeat a very old point: cars are idle 90% of the time, and when they run, they average 12-15mph, that is, no faster than a bike. And most cars need a maintenance visit every 1000h of operation, and are beyond repair after 10 000 hours (ie a bit more than a year).

    Reply
    1. Adam Eran

      I’m no fan of cars, but the “autopsy” of one of the Tesla 3’s found it did not need as much cobalt as had previously been though necessary. There are also storage solutions like the “rhubarb” battery Harvard recently came across. Moving from an extractive to a sustainable economy isn’t going to be trivial, but it’s almost certainly going to be necessary…presuming we can’t mine Mars, or the moon.

      Then there’s the role of conservation… Economic now, says Amory Lovins.

      Reply
  2. Alex

    Should the world’s transportation and electricity sectors ever switch to running entirely on renewables, demand for the metal would soar to more than four times the amount available in reserves, according to the researchers.

    Reserves are a function of the cost of extracting certain material and the price of the end product. The latter will definitely rise if everything indeed switches to renewables and this will increase the reserves that can be profitably extracted. This is not to say that tech will fix everything, just that the article’s analysis is static and does not take into account feedback effects.

    Reply
  3. TalkingCargo

    “The report’s authors modelled one scenario in which they assumed 100-percent renewable energy use for electricity production and transportation…”

    About that transportation sector…
    Can you power those big jumbo jets with batteries? Not with current or even foreseeable technology.
    How about those big container ships and bulk carriers? Not likely.
    Even electric long haul trucks have serious problems – the batteries are so heavy it leaves no room for cargo.

    And of course the heavy equipment used in mining all runs on diesel fuel.

    “We’re not going to tech fix our way out of this,” she said. “It’s going to require more meaningful policy changes that fundamentally reduce the overall demand.”

    The only “Sustainable Future” is one that uses a lot less energy.

    Reply
    1. Joe Well

      As you point out, trucks, cars, and planes can be incredibly energy-inefficient. I don’t understand why building more train lines is so taboo. Yes, we’ll have to get new rights of way and take back some rail-trails, but if countries made it a national priority, wouldn’t it be possible? On the one hand, environmentalists say we’re looking at a Mad Max future, and on the other hand they say that some reasonable use of eminent domain would be too extreme.

      Reply
      1. polecat

        I think we’re headed towards a modified late 18th to early 19th century future, retaining aspects of modern industrial tech, with cruder ways to live, work, and convey. Lots of what we currently consider ‘progress’ will have to take a backseat towards live in greater balance with what’s left of the natural world, hopefully as populations dwindle down to sustainable levels, while ditching GDP and endless growth, as perceived by, well … just about everyone ! Of course, we could draw the short straw, doing a full-on backward double gainer to some kind of neo-cretaceous type of existence, with what few fauna remaining growing larger, while preying on us for a change .. so there’s that.

        Reply
  4. thoughtful person

    Yes, using current energy needs per capita, and following status quo mining practices, there are grave problems with any change in energy supply on a global scale.

    We will need to change these current practices to sustainable practices to succeed. Pricing in externalities would be a good step.

    A couple more ideas: 1. Reduce demand through conservation 1st and greater efficiency 2nd. 2. Recycle instead of mining from new sources. It might cost more to source copper from old electronics, etc, but once externalities are included maybe not?

    Reply
  5. divadab

    There’s lots of oxidized copper ore, which is more expensive to process than deeper sulphite ore. When copper prices skyrocketed in the seventies it made economic sense to mine the oxidized ore, and when prices declined after the Allende coup in Chile opened the floodgates for Chilean ore, the high-cost mines all closed. However, if prices rise (I should really say “when”), these huge oxidized ore mines will re-open.

    There’s no shortage of copper. Nor of oil, really. It’s just that the cost of extraction will keep going up as the easily-accessible product is mined out. Maybe when “stuff” is more expensive we will be less wasteful and profligate in our habits as humans.

    Reply
    1. Odysseus

      Nor is there a shortage of lithium. At roughly 10x current market price, it becomes economically viable to process lithium from seawater.

      That’s a huge reserve that is almost always not discussed, and it’s given only the most cursory discussion here.

      Lithium can be sourced from hard-rock ore (spodumene), from the evaporation of salt brines and from seawater. Lithium sourced from salt brines dominated the market in the 1990s due to lower production costs, however the current market share for brine and spodumene is roughly equal.
      […]
      The industry experts interviewed for this project noted that the solar PV industry are concerned about the price for silver, and that the battery and EV industry see cobalt and nickel as difficult to obtain but are not concerned with long-term supply compared to reserves, especially for lithium.

      Reply
    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      If it costs a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil, will people still exert themselves and their systems to pump oil at the price of one barrel per barrel?

      Reply
    3. John Wright

      But doesn’t the higher processing cost represent more energy expended to process?

      If the energy is sourced from burning hydrocarbons, then to keep net CO2 the same some other energy consumer of hydrocarbons will have to do with less.

      One must remember that higher cost does not imply that it simply takes more dollars to do something. The dollars spent cause energy to be expended but the dollars are not the source of energy (unless they are paper and burned to produce it).

      Reply
  6. lyman alpha blob

    We simply need to use less which requires fewer people. There is no tech that will save us if we continue to increase population.

    Reply
    1. Steve

      You are completely right! Controlling our numbers is the only solution that will save us from a short unpleasant dystopian future.

      Reply
    2. Louis Fyne

      I agree. But I ain’t touching that with a 100 foot pole outside of anonymous internet ranting as it touches on religion and race/national origin. see the pundit/media/twitter firestorm hurled at David Attenborough when he said the same thing.

      Decreased consumption in the developed world isn’t going to make a dent when at the best case scenario population tops out at 10 billion.

      And higher fertility rates among migrants are a substantial driver of population growth in Western Europe and the US.

      Reply
      1. Robert Valiant

        I have yet to see a cogent model for a steady state economy, let alone an economy that is shrinking. I think such systems could be devised (or have been described, outside my knowledge), but they would necessarily violate the commandments of Ayn Rand.

        Reply
    3. Jeremy Grimm

      That neatly moves the problem to places far far away, much like tying cutbacks in CO2 emissions here to cutbacks in countries far far away where we have even less influence than on our own country and its CO2 emissions.

      Reply
    4. Jack Parsons

      Population is nearing peak. Women in the 3rd & 4th world are starting to have fewer children. There are many aspects to why, and they are all argued about (mostly by people with axes to grind).

      Reply
  7. Phillip Allen

    Survival of homo sapiens depends on reaching a sustainable steady state economy, which would in turn require rejecting most extractive activity and definitely rejecting the ideology of ‘growth’. Given the concentration of wealth and power behind the current planetary landscape of extraction and ‘growth’, meaningful action against either are highly unlikely to be implemented before massive and profoundly destructive change is brought about by an inevitable confluence of events, i.e., environmental collapse, economic collapse, nuclear war/nuclear disasters, etc. I’ve come to believe that our energy would be better spent in preserving knowledge and skill sets that will be useful in a deindustrialized world. I think the endless chasing of one technofantasy after another (and I count most ‘renewable’ schemes, themselves unsustainable, as such), with the vast waste of time, wealth and resources entailed, is so much distraction that will prove to be frivolous and futile once the dust settles from the planetary re-set.

    Your Old Dog’s Moment of Light™ for the day.

    Reply
  8. Michael

    There’s already a race to replace Cobalt with most experts saying it’s only a matter of time until a similar or better alternative is found. For other materials there is an environmental cost but, unlike fossil fuels, these materials continuously produce energy; they’re not (literally) burned up. The environmental cost has to be spread across the lifelong value these materials produce, not measured against the one-time boost that fossil fuels provide.

    Reply
  9. lozza262

    One of the options for using fewer batteries and less copper is using renewable energy to make hydrogen. Advantage is that hydrogen can be transported through pipelines in much higher energy density than electricity through copper wire. Also for long distance transportation hydrogen seems to be the best solution. I know we’re not there yet and there are energy losses by converting electricity to hydrogen, and other issues but there are plenty of initiatives to develop hydrogen further at present so I think many of the technical issues will be solved.
    Added bonus is that much of the current gas infrastructure (pipelines to home heaters) can be converted at low cost.

    Reply
    1. Louis Fyne

      the holy grail is to get hydrogen from water via fusion. but the predictions of affordable, commerical-scale fusion have been saying just give us 25 years since 1975.

      but this time around commerical fusion might legit pan out around 2045. cross fingers.

      til then it’s getting hydrogen from nat. gas, which kinda brings everyone back to square 1.

      Reply
      1. Skip Intro

        And don’t forget electrolysis! Generating hydrogen fuel from water only requires electricity, or the right catalysts and some sunlight. That makes it a useful medium for storing energy from intermittent sources.

        I found this article to be typical of a certain glib embittered despair, that extrapolates existing technology to scales it can’t reach as a futile exercise to demonstrate futility, while ignoring likely/necessary advances in technology and social responsibility.

        Reply
  10. Roquentin

    People on the left haven’t been terribly realistic about a lot of aspects of climate change either. I mean, conservatives set the bar pretty low by basically pretending the problem wasn’t real, but there’s not really any other way to see it: the choice is going to be between bad options, worse options, and terrible options. Any solution to the coming climate changes is going to end up with someone getting hurt, it’s only a matter of who, how much, and when. Not doing anything about it will have the same results. I think that’s what the Yellow Vests was really about. The big political battle in the coming decades will likely be fought over which groups and places feel the varying degrees of pain associated with climate change. It’s not going to be pretty.

    Reply
    1. jefemt

      Going to be? Seems like there are lots of cracks, faults and fissures today. Geopolitics + present-day ‘natural’ disasters, mostly weather-related, all causing massive disruptions, heart-ache, death and injury.

      Grab yer bicycle— most efficient transfer of calories to mechanical power… not to mention the hidden externality of improved long term health outcomes…

      18 MPB**

      **miles per burrito

      Fun 7.5 minute video from Naomi Klein OAC and the Intercept about the future of the world under the Green New Deal:

      https://youtu.be/d9uTH0iprVQ

      Reply
      1. Jeremy Grimm

        Bicycles are fine on sunny days, if there were no cars, or if there were safe places to ride them. And if you have plenty of time to get to your destination. And if you don’t need to carry much. Bicycles are not a ‘complete’ solution for most of our transportation needs the way our world has been configured by the car.

        Reply
      2. redleg

        Bikes in northern winter for everyday use?
        Bikes for everyday use in rural areas?
        Bikes for moving bulky or heavy items?

        As someone who used to bike everywhere (weather permitting), I don’t think bikes are realistic outside of light use in warm urban settings, for people in a certain age range.

        Reply
        1. polecat

          “Hey Joe .. Could you help me with this piano. Gotta move it across town ..”

          “Sure Gretta, no problem .. I’ll just go get my BIKE !”

          “sigh”

          Reply
  11. Louis Fyne

    the IPCC report assumes that all 4 of its baseline mitigation strategy uses fission, not even 100% renewable. At a minimum 150% increase in fission.

    see page 16 >>> https://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf

    that the media cites the IPCC’s 1.5 degree target, but fails to also cite its proposed mitigation strategy. (100% renewable is not feasible with near term, barring some Star Trek-like breakthrough out of right field)

    Just saying. engineering is about what you can do today, not you want to do. don’t shoot the messenger.

    Reply
    1. Grumpy Engineer

      @Louis Fyne: Here’s an old “Non Sequitur” comic I think you’ll appreciate: https://www.gocomics.com/nonsequitur/2008/08/31. Sometimes I feel like Jeffrey.

      And you’re right about engineering. It’s about what we actually can do. Too many people out there have latched on to impossible dreams and assume that any technical issues can be overcome by sheer political will. Alas, physical systems are notorious for ignoring the wishes of human beings.

      Reply
      1. Louis Fyne

        that’s my frustration with many pundits/media—-moving data/electrons is easy, finding a green energy source to reliably move physical stuff and power hospitals, sewage pumps, servers, and Amazon warehouses is really, really hard.

        Pundits handwave the truly civilization-scale difficulty of powering the world in a clean, sustainable manner that would last the next 10/50/100 years x 24x7x365.

        Reply
        1. Joe Well

          The other option is just to move fewer people and goods and more electrons instead. Telecommuting. Virtual consumerism instead of the manufactured kind. Eating less food, and more locally grown food.

          Reply
          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            And no more Amazon warehouses. And no more Free Trade and no more Globalization, meaning no more oilburning container megaships.

            Reply
              1. drumlin woodchuckles

                I thought I was looking on the bright side. ” No more Amazon warehouses” seems pretty bright side to me.

                Reply
  12. Synoia

    The only good long term, available at any point on the planet 7×24, energy source is very deep Geothermal. The others have material or distribution supply limits.

    Reply
    1. Mattski

      Speaking of which: a Chilean friend approached me the other day looking for people with start-up money and/or willing to examine the commercial possibilities of a French firm that has a patent on what she became convinced was a very promising geothermal energy-producing/converting invention. I am approaching various old friends and contacts, but if anyone has any quick suggestions about how to approach something like this. . . grateful for hints.

      Reply
    2. Joe Well

      What is the obstacle right now to doing very deep geothermal? Is this potentially destabilizing for the tectonic plates (like fracking)?

      Reply
      1. Synoia

        I’d start at a place Like Yellowstone, or an active volcano. Less drilling required.

        I believe Iceland is a world leader in such power generation.

        Do the easy sites first.

        Deep holes? Needs research I believe.

        Reply
    3. heresy101

      The existing major geothermal are at the Geysers (1,000MW) and the Salton Sea. The wells at the Geysers to the hot dome are about a mile down for water injection and steam extraction. There is a large heat dome at the Geysers that produces steam for steam turbines from the injected water. There is a shortage of water to inject, so water from Clear Lake and the water treatment facility (currently 50/50%) is pumped up the hill to inject to make steam.

      On another issue, besides sulfur a fair amount of lithium is extracted from the steam wells. About five years ago when I asked about selling the lithium, operating staff said it cost more to sell it than to send it to the landfill. Maybe today prices have changed.

      Reply
        1. Comradefrana

          Bit of a misleading terminology and not the kind of geothermal in question. ‘Geothermal’ heat pumps use electricity to transfer heat from the ground to buildings. Geothermal power is about using heat from the ground to generate electricity.

          Reply
          1. Ignacio

            It is not misleading because the technology is based on exchanging thermal energy with the ground. You can have geothermal, hydrothermal or aerothermal heat pumps, depending on the external heat exchange source. That is why they are called “geothermal heat pumps” and not called “geothermal power stations”. I don’t believe that “geothermal power” has the monopoly of geothermal word used as an adjective here. You just have to understand what are the sustantives behind.The beauty on geothermal heat pumps comes from the fact that ground temperature is much more stable than atmospheric.

            Reply
  13. Jeremy

    Thinking about cobalt specifically – is there any realistic future battery technology that replaces lithium-ion and doesn’t need cobalt?

    Reply
    1. Gordon

      Right on cue there’s this via Oilprice.com reporting a new cathode formulation that’s claimed to give high energy density and faster charging than conventional cathodes but with no cobalt. Curiously, the researchers don’t claim this as an advantage so I infer they’re remote from the marketplace or perhaps I’m missing something.

      Reply
      1. Grebo

        I was going to mention that. Replaces the cobalt with vanadium. Vanadium is about 3 times the price of copper and a third the price of cobalt. It seems to have wider availability than cobalt too.

        The other thing I wanted to say is that there is a great deal of copper hanging around in telephone wires. They will all be replaced with fibre or wireless in the next few years freeing it up for turbines and cars.

        Reply
  14. Mattski

    I don’t know how we could think that at the scale required–with the inevitable corporate capture of the ways and means–the process would be anything but hugely exploitative. My Prius-driving friends and family still aren’t interested in the fact that African children mine the rare elements in their batteries.

    It’s staying even a little bit alive we’re talking, and you and I won’t change it by ourselves. I just want my daughter to be guaranteed a doctor down the road; she’s vulnerable.

    Reply
    1. Odysseus

      My Prius-driving friends and family still aren’t interested in the fact that African children mine the rare elements in their batteries.

      So what are you doing to change the fact that African children mine the rare elements in their batteries?

      What exactly do you expect your Prius-driving friends and family to do to change the fact that African children mine the rare elements in their batteries?

      Identifying a problem is only the first step. Start proposing realistic solutions.

      Reply
  15. Susan the other`

    The EV I’m planning to buy is actually a 2-battery vehicle. It’s a bicycle powered 2-seater with a space age cab with battery assist for hills. A good errand car. Think groceries. It’s an ELF. They are manufactured in North Carolina. The second battery is a self charging, mechanical one. That will be me. I’m hoping departments of transportation are quick to realign roadways so that EV bicycles have at least two lanes. Bikes could drastically reduce the demand for high-tech car batteries and an ELF can go from 0-10 in 10 seconds. Ten in ten. Not bad.

    Reply
    1. Joe Well

      Susan, that sounds wonderful!

      Is the battery charged when you pedal?

      I just hope you are safe on the roads. A significant % of drivers should not have a license which for me, at least, is the biggest disincentive to bicycles. I loved riding a bicycle around Boston except for a certain % of the drivers.

      Reply
        1. Arizona Slim

          I have one of those bicycle-thingies too. Ride it just about every day. In traffic.

          And, yes, I agree that there are drivers who have no business being behind the wheel.

          Reply
  16. Gordon

    “Should the world’s transportation and electricity sectors ever switch to running entirely on renewables, demand for the metal would soar to more than four times the amount available in reserves, according to the researchers.”

    It’s often not appreciated that ‘reserves’ in a metals and minerals context isn’t a geological term but a stock market one. For any quoted company the quality and quantity of any deposits it owns are a major driver of its stock valuation. So, before it can quote any ‘reserve’ data, the company must do a lot of slow, detailed and expensive exploration work to satisfy its listing requirements.

    It’s rarely worth doing this for any part of an orebody more than ten years ahead of when it’s likely to be mined so adding up global quoted reserves always has and always will give a misleading impression of the true adequacy of known resources.

    Quoted recycling rates can also paint an unduly dismal picture. Metal demand skews strongly towards capital goods – bridges, houses, cars etc – meaning much of it is ‘out there’ for decades before there’s any chance of recycling. For most metals when the quantities recycled are compared to the demand at the time it was, on average, first used, the percentage recycled is surprisingly high.

    Nor would I worry too much about ‘peak copper’; it’s a slippery concept that embodies the current interplay of demand, technology and geology. If/when new technology or higher demand makes formerly sub-marginal deposits newly viable the peak shifts. That’s happened with deep-water oil and shale oil because of newer technologies (although shale oil probably still isn’t genuinely viable except very locally). Copper too has its equivalent of shale oil but hopefully we won’t have to go there.

    Reply
  17. Heliopause

    Interesting. I’ve also been wondering for a while about the impact of mining for basics like silicon and aluminum, I’ve no expertise in the area so was just wondering.

    Another unintended consequence I’ve not seen commented on enough is the killing of birds and bats by wind turbines. Some numbers I’ve seen reported are alarming even with the relatively paltry quantity of turbines currently in use.

    Reply
    1. Grebo

      You are probably thinking of Altamont Pass where lots of small, fast turbines in a migration corridor do kill too many birds.

      Overall, the number of birds and bats killed by modern wind turbines is dwarfed by the numbers killed by cars, windows, domestic cats, and even nuclear power stations. linky

      Reply
      1. Heliopause

        I’ve read estimates ranging up to the high hundreds of thousands. No doubt those other causes of mortality are much greater, but if wind turbines are increased by a factor of 10? 100? And that’s not even to mention the eyesore factor. Point being, it’s not a free lunch.

        Reply
  18. drumlin woodchuckles

    Food will get you through times of no renewable electricity better than renewable electricity will get you through times of no food.

    Reply
  19. ewmayer

    Did a bit of reading on Cobalt, and something interesting comes out of the numbers – per Wikipedia:

    The United States Geological Survey estimates world reserves of cobalt at 7,100,000 metric tons.[53] The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) currently produces 63% of the world’s cobalt. This market share may reach 73% by 2025 if planned expansions by mining producers like Glencore Plc take place as expected. But by 2030, global demand could be 47 times more than it was in 2017, Bloomberg New Energy Finance has estimated.[54]

    Now, 2017 world production was a bit over 100,000 metric tons. For global demand to increase the roughly 50x Bloomberg estimates by 2030 would imply that annual demand would roughly equal the entirety of current estimated world reserves. So something wil have to give:

    1. World reserves will have to grow hugely, via new rich deposits found;
    2. World demand will have to be curbed, by way of low-cobalt and non-cobalt-based replacement technologies;
    3. Reycling rates will have to be very high.

    Failing those, there’s always asteroid mining!

    Reply
  20. rick

    The only immediately effective solution I have seen is not mentioned above. This is an accurately assessed carbon tax which is then disbursed to various carbon sequestration technology companies. Which will cause the free market to react by lowering expenditures on high carbon activities and will divert funds to remove carbon from the atmosphere supporting development of these important technologies. For example, the estimates for carbon costs of a flight from LAX to Europe is $700, so a passenger is charged for the additional carbon added to the atmosphere, and a carbon sequestration company is paid $700 and buries that amount of carbon in the ground. Immediate reaction to the threat.

    Reply
  21. John

    Very important article.

    People are fascinated with technological solutions to get us out of the crisis. We want someone to invent or build something so that we don’t have to change our lifestyle, but the reality is that we need to drastically reduce our consumption if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change. The transition to a green economy comes with a huge ecological footprint, and all of our existing technology (cars especially) will be in use for decades. The problem is though that capitalism–either neoliberal or Keynesian–is entirely based on consumption. If we reduce aggregate demand, it ultimately results in lower incomes and fewer jobs. No politician will get elected on such a platform.

    The only solution would be to transition to a centrally planned command economy. And sadly by the time there’s a strong enough movement to get us there, it’ll be too late to save our planet.

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  22. SJ

    I run a development group designing electric drive systems for EV’s and these issues are really very well understood. There is a lot of effort going into reducing the use of rare earths on the motor side – here for example:
    http://www.refreedrive.eu/
    and it is clear that scaling the production of batteries is going to be a major issue, although at this point there are no real alternatives to Lithium-ion.
    Copper is a non-issue in automotive, the wiring harness of a standard car uses way more copper than the electric motor in an EV, 40kg (or more) vs 5kg so even if we produce a lot of EV’s we are not using much more copper and recycling the old cars and reducing size and complexity will get us a long way.
    More than 50% of cooper demand is met by recycled metal world wide, and Aluminium can be, and is being used as a replacement even in electric motors (JLR have done this) and wiring.
    everything copper….
    https://copperalliance.org/

    Analyses of copper flows world wide:
    https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es400069b

    Hope this helps

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