The most penetrating criticism I’ve seen of renewable energy is that it’s being promoted at massive scale to reassure us that we can go on as before, with little if any change of lifestyle, no move beyond our comfort zones. That’s a comforting view, one that we’d all love to be true. And yet, it raises a big and uncomfortable question. Can we mine, baby, mine, to ensure no reduction of living standards, no uncomfortable change of lifestyle?
Alas, the shift away from drill, baby drill has already become a shift to mine, baby, mine. Consumer demand for electric cars is a prime example. Heralded as next wave of personal transportation, electric cars will require little to no real change in personal comfort or lifestyle, but will require twice as much copper wire as today’s gasoline combustion vehicles. And building these cars will take yet a bit more mining to build the cars themselves.
There will be millions upon millions of them. The mining industry sees it coming.
Battering the planet for batteries
Then there’s the matter of batteries to make the EV lifestyle run. Consumer demand for batteries — millions of batteries — translates directly to demand for mining cobalt, and lithium or nickel. The anticipation of such grand demand is already stirring talk of soaring prices for these minerals as car-buyer demand puts pressure on the supply side.
Then the batteries have to be replaced in a few years, creating car owner demand for another round of mining. All things considered, the transition from fuel tank to battery is likely a lot less simple and significantly more damaging than many innocently assume.
Add smartphones. They, too, add pressure to mine for the minerals that go into batteries. And our lifestyles include repeated demand for mining every time we buy some next new improved phone with extra bells and whistles, and then add to our carbon footprint by using it to watch videos. Even solar powered garage door openers can increase consumer demand for batteries.
Solar panels themselves add their own demand to mine, baby, mine — again, think copper to build the wiring. The great, glowing promise for solar panels is, like the promise for electric cars, is a promise to maintain current lifestyles, to stay in our comfort zones. The same comfort-zone lifestyles drive demand for the mining necessary to get the raw materials for wind power.
There’s no doubt that we need to build and buy the machinery needed to generate renewable energy from solar and wind. And battery storage is central to the effort. The mining basic to the building is going to happen, to one extent or another. Reduced the ultimate buyer demand can put limits to it, but there’s no stopping it. The need for building solar and wind capacity is too great to deny.
But there’s no denying that much of the building and buying is driven by striving for a comfort zone well beyond meeting anything that deserves the name of need. Recognizing this uncomfortable reality, 50 NGOs have recently scolded the World Bank for its ClimateSmartMining proposal — which focuses a on how much mining would need to increase, and not on how we need to reduce our demands.
Beyond Batteries: Home-grown energy revolutions
Beyond the realm of mining for batteries, reducing our lifestyle demand can reduce the mining for materials to build vast square mileage put under wind farms, and the number of bats and birds killed by wind turbines. It can likewise limit copper mining required to build solar farms in wildlife habitat.
Consumers obviously can’t do all this alone, so putting the pressure on politicians is and will be irreplaceable, but there’s no place like home for starting to make a difference.
We can start by reconsidering everything plugged into a wall outlet. Will life suffer excruciating pain if we leave vacuum cleaners unplugged, and reach for brooms?
Would that be too much to ask? Nobody needs to wait for an Act of Congress to get this ball rolling. Would it be once again possible to open a can of beans without an electric can opener? Electric toothbrushes, electric shavers, anything plugged into a wall outlet needs as hard a look as we can give.
We can start our own home-grown energy-revolutions simply by remembering that the shift to renewable solar and wind generation isn’t a matter of just keeping the lights on. Among many other things that need to be weighed, it’s also a matter of how much home lighting we truly need. Any 60 watt light bulb will demand less energy than a comparable 100 watt bulb. Do we really need home lighting in excess of 60 watt demand?
Building and buying of efficient bulbs will of course make a difference, but even there the wattage demand will matter. There will be mining in order to build these bulbs, but the wattage demand is largely in the hands of the buyers. Is reducing that demand too much to ask?
All things considered, I have to agree with the irony in 16 year old Greta Thunberg’s calmly eloquent, “We live in a strange world. Where we think we can buy or build our way out of a crisis that has been created by buying and building things.”