The Balance Between Sustainable Technology and Mineral Requirements
Several members of the U.S. Congress have introduced legislation to tighten environmental and economic rules for mining companies. But most policy formulations fail to account for the implications of the scale of materials demand, according to Mark P. Mills, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering. He points out that expanding solar, wind, and battery technology will require greater mineral production, and that planning at the policy level needs to reflect that as we continue to transition toward sustainable energy.
What minerals are needed for sustainable energy?
Building wind and solar systems that can produce energy at the same rate as a natural gas power plant, for example, requires a large increase in specialty minerals like zinc, copper, cobalt, and nickel. And the price of metals for electric vehicle batteries has increased dramatically in recent years as well. The U.S. is 100% dependent on imports for many of these crucial components, so expanding sustainable energy sources – even sources coming exclusively from the U.S. – will still rely heavily on imported goods.
Are there other considerations?
In order to process and produce many refined minerals used in solar, wind, and battery applications, a lot of earth must be moved. Take copper, for example. About 200 tons of ore are dug up, moved, crushed, and refined to produce one ton of copper. Cobalt, commonly used in batteries, has an even lower ratio, requiring 1,500 tons of ore extracted to obtain one ton of cobalt. Policymakers need to take into account the “upstream” impact of renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and batteries – then and only then can decisions be made that reflect the true reality of obtaining and implementing these energy sources.
What’s the future look like?
There’s no question that we’re continuing to head in a sustainable direction when it comes to energy, reducing our reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels. And that’s a good thing. But according to Mills, policymakers must be realistic about the implications and the timeline for renewable initiatives, or else it could do more harm than good. He recommends adopting more moderate, long-term targets for sustainable energy goals to avoid triggering inflation in the market, and investing in new technologies that can make renewable sources more effective without the mineral burden.
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