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