Busting three myths about materials and renewable energy

Busting three myths about materials and renewable energy

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No piece of media shaped me more than the mid-2000s TV show MythBusters

In the show, a band of special-effects pros tested out myths from TV shows or popular knowledge, like: Can a snowplow flip a car over? Can you fly using fireworks? Are elephants really afraid of mice? The team tried to figure out the answers in a process that often involved explosions and frequently enlisted the help of a crash test dummy they called Buster.

My process today as a journalist looks a little different, but I think dozens of rounds of the MythBusters cycle—ask, search, answer—definitely left an impression on me.

The MythBusters pilot came out 20 years ago last week, so in honor of the occasion, we’re going to be busting some myths on one of my favorite topics: the materials we need to fight climate change.

Myth #1: We don’t have enough materials to build what we need to fight climate change. 

This one comes up a lot, and there’s a good reason. We’ll need a lot of stuff to set up a new, zero-emissions world. 

To keep things relatively simple, I will focus on the two industries with today's highest emissions: electricity generation and transportation. Together, they make up nearly three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

To cut emissions in these sectors, we need to build a lot of new infrastructure, especially new ways of generating electricity and batteries that can store it. So how much material are we looking at here?

Pretty much any construction requires some combination of steel, aluminium, and copper. According to a new study, to meet climate goals, we’ll need a lot of each of those to build infrastructure to generate electricity. Between now and 2050, demand could total up to 1.96 billion metric tons of steel, 241 million metric tons of aluminium, and 82 million metric tons of copper.

That sounds like a lot, and it is. But if you compare those numbers with the known reserves on the planet that we can access economically, it’s a small fraction. And annual production won’t have to grow by more than 20% for the supply of any of these materials to meet demand.

It’s a slightly different story regarding more speciality ingredients, like the rare-earth metals in wind turbine engines, the polysilicon in solar panels, or the cobalt and lithium in batteries.

For some of those materials, we’ll need growth to be more dramatic. Wind turbines could quadruple the demand for dysprosium and neodymium between now and 2050. We’ll probably need to double the polysilicon we make. Battery materials, too, could see a demand spike.

Getting the mines and infrastructure to meet demand will surely be a challenge. But in every case, the planet has plenty of reserves of the materials we need. You can check out my story for more on this topic and details from the study I mentioned.

Myth #2: All that mining will be worse for the climate and environment than fossil fuels. 

Again, there’s a good reason that this comes up: mining has social and environmental ramifications. But let’s compare the environmental impacts of burning fossil fuels and mining renewable-energy materials.  

It can be tough to weigh different technologies that will cause different harms in different places. So we’ll focus on two sets of numbers here: total emissions, and the total amount of mining needed.

When it comes to emissions, the story is pretty simple: we’ll generate emissions while we build new energy infrastructure, but we’ll avoid a lot more by not burning fossil fuels. At most, we could generate up to 29 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions by building renewable-energy infrastructure. That’s less than one year’s worth of the world’s emissions from fossil fuels today. And the story might turn out even better if we can work out how to cut emissions from steel and cement production or establish robust recycling for some key materials.

As for environmental harms beyond climate-related pollution, the picture can be more complicated, and we’ll get more into this when we address the last myth. But for now, let’s consider the sheer mass of mining needed for fossil fuels and renewable energy.

About 7.5 billion metric tons of coal were mined in 2021. Estimates for the maximum amount of materials we’ll need annually to build low-emissions energy infrastructure top out at about 200 million metric tons, including all the cement, aluminium, steel, and even glass that needs to be produced.

So, compared with relying on fossil fuels, a transition to renewable energy means less stuff coming out of the ground and less climate pollution in the form of emissions. 

Myth #3: Renewable and low-carbon energy are “clean” and beyond reproach. 

Even though renewable energy is necessary to combat climate change, some major challenges come with transitioning away from fossil fuels. That includes potential harm from mining and processing the materials used to build these new technologies. 

Take Thacker Pass, the site of a proposed lithium mine in Nevada in the US. The mine could generate the lithium we need to make a million EVs yearly. But for the Indigenous people who live in the area and consider the land sacred, that’s not a consolation.

Mining can cause pollution, especially water pollution, and communities near those mines will bear the brunt. Not only that, but mining in some parts of the world has been linked to human rights abuses, including forced and child labor. Those abuses certainly aren’t limited just to the metals we need for renewable power, but it’s important to remember that efforts to decarbonize the world aren’t immune from those problems.

We need to cut emissions to address climate change if we want a livable world in the future. And I think we’ll need a lot of new technologies to make that happen.

How we build those technologies, though, could have a huge influence on their social and environmental ramifications. A recent study, for example, found that lithium demand will be influenced by policies around public transit, vehicle size, and recycling. Finding alternatives and cutting down on how much lithium we use could mean we need to build fewer mines in the future.

Two things can be simultaneously true, and I think many folks who think a lot about climate change might agree: climate action is necessary, and how we take that action will matter.

Keeping Up with Climate

MIT spinout Boston Metal raised $120 million to scale up its coal-free steelmaking technology. (Canary Media)

→ The company uses molten oxide electrolysis, which replaces coal with electricity to make steel. (MIT Technology Review)

Speaking of money, climate tech investments topped $1 trillion in 2022, a new record. And for the first time, there was more investment in low-carbon technologies than oil and gas production. (Bloomberg)

Building new solar and wind is cheaper than running existing coal plants in the US in 99% of cases. Falling costs for renewables and a boost from recent policy are turning coal power into a dinosaur. (Inside Climate News)

As climate change supercharges wildfires in the western US, Colorado is joining other states using AI to track blazes. (Associated Press)

Natural gas is a fossil fuel, but a growing number of companies are trying to sell it as “green.” (Canary Media)

Climate change is coming for another one of my favorite things: fancy ham. To make Spanish jamón ibérico bellota, pigs have to eat acorns for the last month of their lives. But oak trees produce fewer acorns because of unusually hot, dry summers. (The Guardian)

Cheaper lithium-ion batteries are coming to the US. Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries don’t use expensive cobalt and nickel, and production is spreading outside China. (Chemical and Engineering News)

→ I talked about these low-cost batteries in a story about what’s coming up for the industry this year. If you haven’t read it yet, check it out for all my 2023 predictions. (MIT Technology Review)


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About the Author: Isaac Washington

Isaac Washington is the most recent addition to our team. Isaac specializes in General News, and Home and Garden news. Isaac has worked for years in the agricultural industry and recently has turned his attention to writing. Technology is one of his passions.