Foreign Policy: The limits of clean energy

Preface. This article appeared in the magazine Foreign Policy. Some of the points made are:

  • Renewables to power the world would require 34 million metric tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead, 50 million tons of zinc, 162 million tons of aluminum, and no less than 4.8 billion tons of iron.
  • The batteries for power storage when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing will require 40 million tons of lithium requiring a 2,700 percent increase over current levels of extraction. Lithium is an ecological disaster. It takes 500,000 gallons of water to produce one ton of lithium. Most lithium is in dry areas, and mining companies are using up the groundwater, leaving nothing for farmers to irrigate their crops with, while chemical leaks from lithium mines have poisoned thousands of miles of rivers, killing entire freshwater ecosystems.
  • We’ll also need to replace 2 billion vehicles with electric vehicles, leading to even more mind-boggling amounts of materials.
  • Ecologists estimate that even at present rates of global material use, we are overshooting sustainable levels by 82 percent.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Hickel, J. 2019. The limits of clean energy. If the world isn’t careful, renewable energy could become as destructive as fossil fuels. Foreign policy.

The conversation about climate change has been blazing ahead in recent months. Propelled by the school climate strikes and social movements like Extinction Rebellion, a number of governments have declared a climate emergency, and progressive political parties are making plans—at last—for a rapid transition to clean energy under the banner of the Green New Deal.

This is a welcome shift, and we need more of it. But a new problem is beginning to emerge that warrants our attention. Some proponents of the Green New Deal seem to believe that it will pave the way to a utopia of “green growth.” Once we trade dirty fossil fuels for clean energy, there’s no reason we can’t keep expanding the economy forever.

This narrative may seem reasonable enough at first glance, but there are good reasons to think twice about it. One of them has to do with clean energy itself.

The phrase “clean energy” normally conjures up happy, innocent images of warm sunshine and fresh wind. But while sunshine and wind is obviously clean, the infrastructure we need to capture it is not. Far from it. The transition to renewables is going to require a dramatic increase in the extraction of metals and rare-earth minerals, with real ecological and social costs.

We need a rapid transition to renewables, yes—but scientists warn that we can’t keep growing energy use at existing rates. No energy is innocent. The only truly clean energy is less energy.

In 2017, the World Bank released a little-noticed report that offered the first comprehensive look at this question. It models the increase in material extraction that would be required to build enough solar and wind utilities to produce an annual output of about 7 terawatts of electricity by 2050. That’s enough to power roughly half of the global economy. By doubling the World Bank figures, we can estimate what it will take to get all the way to zero emissions—and the results are staggering: 34 million metric tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead, 50 million tons of zinc, 162 million tons of aluminum, and no less than 4.8 billion tons of iron.

In some cases, the transition to renewables will require a massive increase over existing levels of extraction. For neodymium—an essential element in wind turbines—extraction will need to rise by nearly 35 percent over current levels. Higher-end estimates reported by the World Bank suggest it could double.

The same is true of silver, which is critical to solar panels. Silver extraction will go up 38 percent and perhaps as much as 105 percent. Demand for indium, also essential to solar technology, will more than triple and could end up skyrocketing by 920 percent.

And then there are all the batteries we’re going to need for power storage. To keep energy flowing when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing will require enormous batteries at the grid level. This means 40 million tons of lithium—an eye-watering 2,700 percent increase over current levels of extraction.

That’s just for electricity. We also need to think about vehicles. This year, a group of leading British scientists submitted a letter to the U.K. Committee on Climate Change outlining their concerns about the ecological impact of electric cars. They agree, of course, that we need to end the sale and use of combustion engines. But they pointed out that unless consumption habits change, replacing the world’s projected fleet of 2 billion vehicles is going to require an explosive increase in mining: Global annual extraction of neodymium and dysprosium will go up by another 70 percent, annual extraction of copper will need to more than double, and cobalt will need to increase by a factor of almost four—all for the entire period from now to 2050.

The problem here is not that we’re going to run out of key minerals—although that may indeed become a concern. The real issue is that this will exacerbate an already existing crisis of overextraction. Mining has become one of the biggest single drivers of deforestation, ecosystem collapse, and biodiversity loss around the world. Ecologists estimate that even at present rates of global material use, we are overshooting sustainable levels by 82 percent.

Take silver, for instance. Mexico is home to the Peñasquito mine, one of the biggest silver mines in the world. Covering nearly 40 square miles, the operation is staggering in its scale: a sprawling open-pit complex ripped into the mountains, flanked by two waste dumps each a mile long, and a tailings dam full of toxic sludge held back by a wall that’s 7 miles around and as high as a 50-story skyscraper. This mine will produce 11,000 tons of silver in 10 years before its reserves, the biggest in the world, are gone.

To transition the global economy to renewables, we need to commission up to 130 more mines on the scale of Peñasquito. Just for silver.

Lithium is another ecological disaster. It takes 500,000 gallons of water to produce a single ton of lithium. Even at present levels of extraction this is causing problems. In the Andes, where most of the world’s lithium is located, mining companies are burning through the water tables and leaving farmers with nothing to irrigate their crops. Many have had no choice but to abandon their land altogether. Meanwhile, chemical leaks from lithium mines have poisoned rivers from Chile to Argentina, Nevada to Tibet, killing off whole freshwater ecosystems. The lithium boom has barely even started, and it’s already a crisis.

And all of this is just to power the existing global economy. Things become even more extreme when we start accounting for growth. As energy demand continues to rise, material extraction for renewables will become all the more aggressive—and the higher the growth rate, the worse it will get.

It’s important to keep in mind that most of the key materials for the energy transition are located in the global south. Parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia will likely become the target of a new scramble for resources, and some countries may become victims of new forms of colonization. It happened in the 17th and 18th centuries with the hunt for gold and silver from South America. In the 19th century, it was land for cotton and sugar plantations in the Caribbean. In the 20th century, it was diamonds from South Africa, cobalt from Congo, and oil from the Middle East. It’s not difficult to imagine that the scramble for renewables might become similarly violent.

If we don’t take precautions, clean energy firms could become as destructive as fossil fuel companies—buying off politicians, trashing ecosystems, lobbying against environmental regulations, even assassinating community leaders who stand in their way.

Some hope that nuclear power will help us get around these problems—and surely it needs to be part of the mix. But nuclear comes with its own constraints. For one, it takes so long to get new power plants up and running that they can play only a small role in getting us to zero emissions by midcentury. And even in the longer term, nuclear can’t be scaled beyond about 1 terawatt. Absent a miraculous technological breakthrough, the vast majority of our energy will have to come from solar and wind.

Reducing energy demand not only enables a faster transition to renewables, but also ensures that the transition doesn’t trigger new waves of destruction.

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7 Responses to Foreign Policy: The limits of clean energy

  1. ‘We’ need to get rid of the cars, altogether.

    If we do we’ll at least have a fighting chance.

    • Robert Howell says:

      10 calories of hydrocarbons to produce just 1 calorie of food, I don’t think getting rid of cars is going to do much to curb the overshoot.
      The world needs hydrocarbons, in order to get them the companies need employees and goods to keep getting the hydrocarbons, this requires functioning supply chains and an economy with sufficient complexity to keep it going and markets to move and consume the energy.

  2. Robert Howell says:

    I support a 150 unit fleet of large off-highway mining trucks in the 320 to 400 ton (ultra) class. These beasts produce 3600 to 4000 HP and eat anywhere from 800 to 1200 gallons of fuel each day, each unit. There is about 12 gallons of diesel fuel in an average barrel of crude oil so this fleet uses the diesel fuel from over 4.5 million barrels of crude oil per year. That’s one average size fleet of just haul trucks around here from just one mine. That does not include prime loaders, road maintenance machines nor support equipment. Imagine the toll on just fuel reserves to double or triple mining operations around the world.

  3. Cynic says:

    Best wishes to you for the New Year, and renewed thanks for this highly informative blog; even if it is often like looking in the mirror and finding that, yes, you do look absolutely as bad as you feel…..

  4. JT Roberts says:

    Good summation.

  5. Constant Walker says:

    The old saw has it that why worry, since “….in a hundred years we’ll all be dead.” Thanks to all this electro-mechanical, institutional, and ideological enhancement enjoyed by the “civilized” peoples today, that time horizon for probable extinction is effectively reduced to, maybe, five-to-ten years.

    Even that is likely crazily optimistic, given the rampant insanity so undeniably on-display among those operating all that machinery. The pyramid-scheming priesthood, of the cult of death and destruction that has always ruled “civilization,” is now insisting on All our company….here in the terminal throes of their own incurable misery. Too bad our domesticated Human relations, organically crippled by the fear-inducing “self” sickness, just can’t see The Way clear of this “Self”-inflicted predicament.

    Meantime, us surviving Free Wild Peoples, of all Kinds, will just keep on fulfilling as best we can our given Organic Functions within Earth’s Whole Living Arrangement. For HumanKind that is as a component of Her natural immune system. Any among our currently captive Two-legged Sisters and Brothers who might want to join us can do it by simply (though maybe not so easily) getting over their own too-precious “self.”

    • Warren says:

      A grim summation indeed….but I appreciated your nod to the Free Wild Peoples, which are few and far between….
      Humility, adaptability, and heart is needed to face such epic levels of change and disruption.
      Perhaps there are some wildcards out there to make the decline not so much of clusterfuck…