New Video: Clean Energy = Less Mining

September 15, 2022

I spoke to Jim Krane at Rice University, who has just completed a study looking at comparative demands for mining from a gigawatt capacity of coal, vs wind on the Texas Grid.

The findings? After 20 years, you would have to mine 5 times as material to keep the coal plant operating, compared to the wind power, and the ratio keeps improving as long as you run the wind turbines. Newer turbines are rated to last 25 to even 40 years.

In addition, I looked at the issue of lithium vs coal. One trope from the anti-clean energy tribe is that clean energy is not a net gain, because you still have to mine for things like lithium for energy storage. I point out that as of. 2020 we were mining 100,000 times more coal than lithium, and that newer processes will be able to produce significant fractions of global lithium demand with no mining impacts.

UPDATE: Dr Krane adds via twitter –

10 Responses to “New Video: Clean Energy = Less Mining”

  1. Roger Walker Says:

    And, of course, it’s only a matter of time till someone comes up with a way eliminating the need for lithium altogether.


    • Replacing lithium is a matter of physics, not time. Whether it can be practically and economically replaced is not clear.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      For energy-dense batteries needed for the EVs and e-toys, Li pretty much rules the periodic table.

      For fat batteries (on the grid or for home storage), more parochial elements can be used.

  2. John Oneill Says:

    In 2021, the world used 8 billion tonnes of coal to produce 159 exajoules of energy. It also mined 57 thousand tonnes of yellowcake, about 23% less than yearly demand. Nuclear produced 25 exajoules. 75 thousand tonnes of U3O8 would balance demand, so about 100,000x as much coal was mined to make 6.4x as much energy. Uranium couldn’t yet replace all coal use – especially for steelmaking – but it could cover all the electricity generation, some hydrogen and fertiliser production, and most district heating, with ten thousand times less mining – even allowing for leaner ores.


  3. Batteries require a lot more minerals besides lithium. The Biden administration recently canceled a coper/nickel mine:

    The Biden administration has canceled two federal mineral leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the company’s bid to build an underground mine for copper, nickel and precious metals on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

    https://www.mprnews.org/story/2022/01/26/biden-administration-cancels-twin-metals-leases

  4. gmrmt Says:

    Am I right in thinking that the comparison of mining for wind vs. coal only compares the amount of coal to be burned to generate a GW to the amount of material needed to be mined to make a GW worth of wind generation?
    Does that mean the amount of material needed to be mined to make the coal-fired plant isn’t accounted for? That would make the comparison even more favourable.

    • John Oneill Says:

      The opposite – making scores of wind turbines to equal the output of one coal plant will take a lot more steel and concrete than building just the coal plant. Remember, the coal plant can be run when needed, or all the time; the wind turbines run when the wind blows. To get power off them at other times, using batteries, you’d have to more than double capacity to allow for demand when the wind’s blowing, as well as covering storage for later. Then add another ~30% capacity to cover round trip losses. The carbon cost of the batteries would also be high, depending on what time length you had to cover. Saying which, embodied energy costs are only a fraction of the total for coal -about ten percent covers mining, transport, and construction. Mine mouth coal plants it would be even less – just straight out of the ground and into the atmosphere.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        They included steel production for the wind turbines in their calculations.
        They also calculated the total energy produced.

        AFAICT, they didn’t even look at water use.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      There are a whole lot of variables in play here just in comparing coal to wind.

      Wind turbines require steel and concrete, more than the power plant that just burns the coal. Open pit coal mines have their own massive capital equipment to dig out and transport the coal.

      Onshore wind (e.g. wind farms tucking into farmland) can provide a return a quick installation and return on investment.

      Offshore wind farms require more lead time and capital because those are giant mofos planted in the seabed.

      Wind does not depend on or threaten water supplies like thermal power plants.

      Once a wind farm is up and running it is minimally disruptive and straightforward to maintain (e.g., individual turbines can be taken down for maintenance, less complex than turning around a thermal plant).

      While the wind is pretty much meteorologically predictable, the turbine isn’t running all of the time: Load demand isn’t addressed while the wind isn’t blowing, and any energy it provides in excess of immediate need must be stored somewhere. Investment calculations naturally have to take this into account. Conversely, you can burn coal you dug up and shipped to the plant at any time, but it can’t compete realtime on price head-to-head with PV or wind, so coal plant investors have to take into account when calculating depreciation, 24-hour operation and maintenance, and ROI.

      This hasn’t even touched health effects of coal v. wind.


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