Renewable energy revolution will require better management of metals

Jeremy Hance
October 30, 2013

If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, scientists say global society will need a rapid and aggressive replacement of fossil fuel energy for renewable, such as solar, wind, geo-thermal, and tidal. While experts say a renewable revolution would not only mitigate climate change but also likely invigorate economies and cut life-threatening pollution, such a revolution would not come without challenges. According to a new commentary piece in Nature Geoscience one of the largest challenges of the renewable revolution will be rising demand for metals, both rare and common.

"Humankind faces a vicious circle: a shift to renewable energy will replace one non-renewable resource, fossil fuel, with another: metals and minerals," write the commentary's authors with the Université Grenoble Alpes in France. They add that this challenge won't just be for so-called rare earths—such as selenium and neodymium—but also for more abundant metals

"Solar and wind facilities require up to 15 times more concrete, 90 times more aluminum, and 50 times more iron, copper and glass than fossil fuels or nuclear energy."

According to the researchers, the pace of the renewable energy rollout could be hampered by a race for metals which are already becoming more difficult, and more expensive, to secure. In addition, mining is a hugely energy-intensive industry; this means, scaling up renewable energy could be undercut by increasing energy demands for the materials required.

So, what are the solutions? According to the authors, better cooperation in the industry, stepping-up recycling efforts, increasing innovation and substitute materials, and more "local mining" would likely smooth the way for a full-scale renewable revolution. Local mining, like the local food movement, could decrease the energy and economic costs of metal mining, write the authors.

Mining is an unquestionably controversial issue in many parts of the world, given massive environmental issues and social harm. Unregulated mining in places like the Amazon and Congo have devastated ecosystems and local communities. Given this, the researchers encourage more mining in countries that are better able to mitigate environmental and social problems, pointing to the Boliden's Aitik mine in Finland as an example.

"The energy transition to renewables can only work if all resources are managed simultaneously, as part of a global, integral whole," the researchers write. "Designs of new products need to take into account the realities of mineral supply, with recycling of raw materials integrated at both the creation stage and at the end of product's life cycle."

Suraco aluminum plant in Suriname. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Suraco aluminum plant in Suriname. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

  • Olivier Vidal, Bruno Goffé and Nicholas Arndt. (2013) Metals for a low-carbon society. Nature Geoscience: Vol. 6 No. 11

AUTHOR: Jeremy Hance joined Mongabay full-time in 2009. He currently serves as senior writer and editor. He has also authored a book.

Related articles

'Carbon bubble' could cause next global financial crisis

(04/22/2013) The world could be heading for a major economic crisis as stock markets inflate an investment bubble in fossil fuels to the tune of trillions of dollars, according to leading economists. "The financial crisis has shown what happens when risks accumulate unnoticed," said Lord (Nicholas) Stern, a professor at the London School of Economics. He said the risk was "very big indeed" and that almost all investors and regulators were failing to address it.

U.S. Republican voters want action on climate change

(04/03/2013) A new poll by the Center for Climate Change Communication (4C) at George Mason University finds that a majority of U.S. citizens who identify as Republicans or Republican-leaning independents want the government to do more to tackles climate change. Sixty-two percent of those polled said that the U.S. government "absolutely should" or "probably should" takes steps to address climate change. This goes against the views of many Republican congressmen—as well as the party platform—who largely oppose action on climate change.

Featured video: moving green, local energy forward in Southeast Asia

(02/25/2013) A new video highlights the work and drive of renewable energy proponents at the inaugural meeting of Southeast Asia Renewable Energy People’s Assembly (SEAREPA) in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Held last year, the meeting brought together 80 organizations from 12 countries to discuss the potential and challenges of green energy in the region. The idea of SEAREPA came about after activists in Sabah successfully defeated plans for a coal-fired power plant to be built adjacent to old-growth rainforest and one of the world's most biodiverse coral reefs.

Google invests $200m in west Texas wind farm

(01/09/2013) Google has made another big renewable energy investment, putting $200 million into a Texas wind farm, said the Internet search giant in a post on its official blog.

'No-one is listening to the entire scientific community': global carbon emissions set to hit new high

(12/03/2012) Global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from industrial sources are set to hit a new record high this year according to a new analysis by Global Carbon Project. The analysis in Nature Climate Changes predicts that CO2 emissions will rise another 2.6 percent, hitting 35.6 billion tonnes. The scientists warn that such steep climbs in global emissions year-after-year means that the door is rapidly closing on a global agreement to keep temperatures from rising 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (October 30, 2013).

Renewable energy revolution will require better management of metals.