Clean Energy Mining Footprint Tiny Compared to Fossil Fuels

October 24, 2021

Climate activists including Vanessa Nakate from Uganda and Leonie Bremer of the German Fridays for Future movement, visit the Garzweiler open-cast coal mine in Luetzerath, western Germany, Oct. 9, 2021.

Kind of what I’ve been telling people for a long time.
Rice University experts ran some numbers for the Dallas Morning News.

Dallas Morning News:

Dangerous misconceptions about the energy transition are taking hold in the energy policy community. Some analysts argue that the shift to renewable power is reprising America’s risky dependence on dirty mining and corrupt regimes, just as the country has achieved hard-fought independence in fossil fuels.

Our research suggests these claims are off base. Even though renewables require imports of raw material and manufactured components, clean energy systems are bringing deep declines in mining, in energy-related trade and in political risks to the U.S. energy supply.

It’s true that building solar arrays and wind farms requires more materials (iron, copper, rare earths, cobalt and others) than fossil fuel plants of equivalent output.

But over their operating lifetimes, wind and solar are far less mining-intensive than fossil fuels, and far less exposed to political risk.

Take coal as an example. The 7.7 billion metric tons of coal mined globally in 2020 were also combusted in 2020 or soon after. That coal must be replaced in 2021 and in every subsequent year until the plants burning it are decommissioned.

By contrast, renewable systems only need raw materials during manufacturing. The 22 million metric tons of transition metals produced in 2020 were utilized in solar arrays, wind turbines, storage systems and wires that will generate, store and transport carbon-free power for decades. There is zero further mining for the life of that equipment. In many cases, the materials can be recycled once the equipment’s useful life is done.

Our research shows that installing just 1 gigawatt of wind capacity to replace coal on a grid like that in Texas reduces total mining by 25 million metric tons over 20 years. That includes not just the extraction of ores for steel, copper, rare earths and other materials, but all earth moved in the process, including overburden and waste.

Over two decades, five times more power would be produced by mining an equivalent amount for wind rather than coal.

These disparities are structural. Economists refer to fossil fuels as “stocks” that can be traded and stored but used only once. Renewable energy takes the form of “flows,” air or sunlight, captured by long-lived infrastructure.

This crucial distinction allows for enormous reductions in materials. In 2020, for example, the world consumed 350 times more coal and 190 times more oil than all transition materials combined.

Trade in oil, gas and coal represent between 5% and 10% of total international trade by value and around a third of seaborne trade by volume. Raw materials and components for the energy transition will never come close, even as they replace those fuels.

Even if the world increased the annual global production of all rare earths, graphite, cobalt and copper 12-fold, and increased lithium production 24-fold — in line with requirements to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals — the tonnage produced would comprise just 3% of 2020 coal production.

Yes, it will be challenging to develop sufficient mining. Shortages will slow the transition at times. But the tradeoffs of replacing fossil fuels also include huge gains in energy security.

The massive reduction in materials alone helps mitigate supply chain risk.

But the real payoff arises because we only need these materials during manufacturing and construction. Once the solar arrays and wind turbines are producing power, their exposure to supply chain risk is finished. For fossil fuel plants, switching them on is when the risk exposures begin.

That means renewable power output is largely impervious to embargoes, strategic chokepoints, unrest and the myriad potential depredations that cause the U.S. government to spend more than $100 billion a year to protect trade routes and oil producers.

Despite such welcome improvements to U.S. energy security, a different perspective is taking hold in popular discourse. We keep hearing that mineral supply chain uncertainty and geopolitical risk mean we need to slow the transition. These self-serving messages appear to be aimed at preserving fossil fuel profits and business models, despite continuing damage to the climate and public health.

Another misconception is around the need for U.S. government stockpiles of minerals, as if they were fuels to be combusted.

“Congress played a huge role in setting up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve,” said Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan in a 2020 hearing in the U.S. Senate. “We really need to get on this and I think the SPR, with the energy sector, is a great analogy for strategic critical minerals.”

Actually, oil is not a great analogy. When it comes to oil, strategic stockpiles make sense. Running out when it counts — during a war — can be catastrophic. In fact, oil-denial strategies are attractive because they allow an adversary to be defeated without destroying its military.

Does the same strategic calculus apply to transitioned energy systems? No. Stockpiling transition materials would be like stockpiling steel as a favor to U.S. fossil fuel producers.

A denial of access to, say, gallium would affect the ability of U.S. manufacturers to produce thin-film solar panels in the same way that a trade blockade on steel would make oil drilling rigs costlier to produce. Either might be catastrophic for a few companies but would not prevent existing equipment from functioning.

We know this because energy transition materials have already been subjected to price spikes, political manipulation and embargo that have fed into component costs. Transition metals may even be more susceptible than fossil fuels to manipulative trade practices because known reserves are more geographically concentrated.

Even so, anti-competitive practices have been, and remain, much less effective in disrupting renewables systems than the fossil fuel system. As long as there is flexibility in the transition’s timelines and technologies — and backup from conventional systems — price increases will have limited disruptive power.

Rather than hoarding, government involvement would be better directed toward incentivizing geographic diversity of minerals mining and refining, including inside the United States.

Energy policymakers should understand there’s a payoff for harnessing energy flows that cannot be traded, exhausted or interrupted. The benefits include climate and environment, but also extend to energy security.

President Jimmy Carter knew this in 1979, when he assured us: “No one can ever embargo the sun or interrupt its delivery to us.”

Jim Krane is an energy studies fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Robert Idel is a doctoral candidate in economics at Rice.

Just as a further memory jogger, I offer this related to the impact of oil drilling in just one small area of the planet – Chevron impacts in the Amazon.

2 Responses to “Clean Energy Mining Footprint Tiny Compared to Fossil Fuels”

  1. ecoquant Says:

    Also, penalizing the newcomers because we are in the midst of a transition makes no logical sense. The comparison ought to be between a steady state zero Carbon energy system, once we get there, with a steady state fossil fueled energy system. People are comparing the buildout with the latter’s steady state.

    That makes no sense at all.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      That makes no sense at all.

      It definitely makes sense in terms of a self-interested disinformation campaign.

      Not only have the fossil fuel industries been pushing this kind of specious argument, but for decades have been grooming low-information conservatives to think and argue this way.

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