Too Many Demand Too Much of Renewable Energy

Wind turbines, Columbia River Gorge. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Many have heard talk of coal miners finding new jobs installing rooftop solar panels. It’s less often mentioned, but it seems just as likely that at least some coal miners will transition to new jobs in the metals mining basic to building those solar panels. 

Batteries for storing solar energy are also central to transition from fossil fuels to solar. Coal miners again might just transition to the mining basic to metals required for the batteries industry. 

It’s a transition that comes as a reckoning for all concerned.

The fossil fuel industry and allied utilities have long feared and fought this reckoning. Writing for the April 10, 2013 issue of Grist magazine, David Roberts reported on the electric power industry’s open admission that competition from renewables is a direct threat to its business. 

So a war against renewable energy began at once, and hasn’t stopped. As of February 19, 2019, the Energy and Policy Institute reported on direct attacks being led by “coal and gas industries that fear competition from the booming renewable energy industry.” 

Count me and many others caught in a similar reckoning. I’m among the supporters of renewables, but I worry as much as anyone about the scale of mining essential to building a large-scale renewable infrastructure. 

I support the renewables because we plainly need to get serious about keeping as much fossil fuel in the ground as we can. Failure to do that can amount to torturous lives and deaths for many millions and plausibly billions of people. 

Renewables are imperative to placing real limits on the scale of human tragedy in the years and decades ahead. That said, I worry because the sheer scale of mining necessary to scaling up the renewables will cause yet more damage to an already damaged world. Just in my own home state, Montana, the necessary transition from fossil to renewable energy will put legs under proposals for mining associated with the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, the Smith River, and Copper Mountain east of Missoula. 

In a nutshell, renewable technology can’t possibly be as clean and green as it’s so often seen. Nor will it be enough. Imperative, yes. But not enough. 

It’s biggest problem is that too many of us are demanding too much of it.

The most penetrating criticism I’ve seen of renewable tech is that it’s being promoted at massive scale to reassure us that we can go on as before, with little if any reduction of our demand for energy, no change of lifestyle, no movement beyond what Greta Thunberg calls our “comfort zones.”

This is a comforting view, one that we’d all love to be true. But it means relying on a massive scale of mining.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. As Greta Thunberg told us not so long ago, many of our problems are traceable back to, as she puts it, “the way we live.” Whether it’s consumer demand to mine for coal, consumer demand to drill for oil and gas, or a new and growing demand to mine, baby, mine for the necessary transition to alternative energy, a common routine of comfortably consumptive and demanding lifestyles is at the heart of a painful and all-too depressing dilemma.

And, in an economically polarized world like ours, many consumers just aren’t in position to be responsible for demanding much in the first place, given their relative lack of money. Asking them to reduce already-low demand wouldn’t gain much, and in many cases would even be cruel. The great bulk of responsibility unavoidably rests on those — businesses along with households —currently basking in the luxury of more opportunities for reducing their demand.

Lance Olsen, a Montana native, was president of the Missoula, Montana-based Great Bear Foundation from 1982-1992. He has also served on the governing council of the Montana Wilderness Association and the advisory council of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. He was previously a college teacher and associate of the American Psychological Association and its Division on Population and Environmental Psychology, and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. Now retired, he runs a restricted listserv of global scope for climate researchers, wildlife researchers, agency staff, graduate students, and NGOs concerned about the consequences of a changing climate. He can be contacted at