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The Paradox Of Building America's Green Lifestyle Grid

As Lance Olsen notes, the renewable energy revolution is just beginning but scaling it also requires massive earthmoving

A wind farm in the West. Photo courtesy Joshua Winchell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A wind farm in the West. Photo courtesy Joshua Winchell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Can we mine our way out of our climate troubles and challenges to long-term resource sustainability on a planet with growing numbers of humans and rising demand for raw material consumption? 

The most penetrating criticism I’ve seen of renewable energy—such as wind,  solar, hydropower, hydrogen and long-life battery technology— 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 for fossil fuels becomes a shift to mine, baby, mine, so that no one has to step out of their comfort zone.  Consumer demand for electric cars is a prime example. Heralded as the next wave of personal transportation, electric cars will require twice as much copper wire as today’s gasoline combustion vehicles. And building these cars will take yet a bit more mining for the cars themselves. There will be millions upon millions of them, and the mining industry sees it coming. 

Then there’s the matter of batteries to make the EVs 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 consumer demand puts pressure on the supply side. The transition from fuel tank to battery is likely a lot less simple 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 — think copper for wiring. The demand for solar panels is, at bottom, demand to maintain our energy consuming lifestyles, to stay in our comfort zones, to persist in the way we live. The same aim drives our trend toward electric cars, and the same demand lies behind 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. The mining basic to the building is going to happen. There’s no stopping it. The need for building solar and wind capacity is too great to deny.
Where does copper wire come from? In the past, when it fueled the first electricity revolution that brought power into all our homes, it was mined in places like Butte, Montana and Bingham Canyon, Utah, pictured here. Bingham Canyon, better known as the Kennecott Copper Mine southwest of Salt Lake City, is the largest man-made excavation in the world.  Copper now figures squarely in the second energy revolution, this one involving the wiring in electric cars being advanced as replacements for gas-burning vehicles. Photo courtesy public domain and Wikimedia Commons.
Where does copper wire come from? In the past, when it fueled the first electricity revolution that brought power into all our homes, it was mined in places like Butte, Montana and Bingham Canyon, Utah, pictured here. Bingham Canyon, better known as the Kennecott Copper Mine southwest of Salt Lake City, is the largest man-made excavation in the world. Copper now figures squarely in the second energy revolution, this one involving the wiring in electric cars being advanced as replacements for gas-burning vehicles. Photo courtesy public domain and Wikimedia Commons.
But there’s no denying that much of the demand is driven by striving for a comfort zone well beyond meeting anything that deserves the name of need. Recognizing this uncomfortable reality, 50 non-governmental organizations have recently scolded the World Bank for its Climate-Smart Mining proposal—which focuses a lot on how much mining would need to increase and not at all on how we need to reduce consumption.

The shift to renewable solar and wind generation is not a matter of just keeping the lights on. Among many other things that need to be weighed, it’s a matter of how much lighting we truly need. Any 60-watt light bulb will demand less energy than a comparable 100-watt bulb. Do we really need 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 makes a difference. 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 crisply 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.

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Also read these recent columns by Lance Olsen (just click on them)




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About Lance Olsen

Lance Olsen has been involved with science and wildlife conservation in the Northern Rockies for more than four decades.  A former executive director of the Missoula, Montana-based Great Bear Foundation, he worked with noted bear researchers, including Drs. Charles Jonkel and John Craighead. He is based in Missoula, Montana.
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