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Renewable Energy Isn’t New and It Has a Dark Side

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

Welcome to this article. I’m glad you’re here. These articles are about sustainability, philosophy, psychology, history, religion, evolution, etc. Most of it is ‘bigger picture’ stuff. For more ‘how-to’ content, subscribe to my fortnightly emails here.


[Our world transitions away from planet-warming coal, oil and gas in a race to slow down climate change.

This transition runs on renewable, “green” energy.

Using renewable energy isn’t new – as this post highlights.

What’s new is the way we get and store renewable energy. That process has consequences people don’t want to know about, because it tarnishes the “green clean” energy facade. Let’s look at the dark side of the “green” energy transition.]



Imagine that you’re a 14th-century baker.


How do you make flour?


After the harvest, do you take a bale of wheat and throw it in the air, expecting to get a flour shower?


Not if you are serious about baking.


You get stones, mud and timber and you build a windmill; wind rotates a ten-metre wide vertical crown wheel, turning smaller wheels inside the mill. The wheels move big grindstones, grinding the wheat, making flour.


You bake bread, you sell bread, you live.


Your livelihood depends on free, clean, abundant renewable energy.


But you are not using that wind energy in its raw state (you’re not throwing wheat in the air and getting flour in return).


You’re converting wind energy to turn wheels; you’re converting wheat to flour.


The windmill is your “conversion mechanism”


Fast forward to 2022…


The raw energy sources - wind, sun, water - are the same as in the 14th century.


But like the medieval baker, we must convert that wind energy from its raw state to energy for our use (baker - mechanical, us - electrical).


The baker used timber and stones to build his mill to convert wind energy to flour…


We use other resources to build wind turbines, solar panels, and car batteries to convert renewable energy to electricity.


These resources include rare minerals - finite, precious metals. They have a unique ability to convert and store energy from wind or sun to make electricity.


There would be no wind turbines, smartphones, or electric cars without copper, graphite, cobalt, and other rare minerals.


These resources, like coal, have to be extracted somewhere, by someone.


People mine copper, graphite, and cobalt in countries like Chile, China, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where environmental and social guardrails are missing.


Our hunger for energy - “green” energy - is paralleled by a hunger for these rare minerals.


Each hungry bite into the earth’s crust to get the minerals for the “green” transition leaves a blood mark.


Water and lives are lost in the poisoned air.


Let’s look at three examples:



This Copper Mine Uses 2,000 Litres of Water EACH SECOND


Welcome to Chuquicamata in northern Chile – the world’s largest open-pit copper mine. It’s 4km wide and 1km deep and it supplies 13% of all copper globally.



Copper is required for electricity transmission and storage.


An electric car contains up to 80kg of copper – about four times more than a fuel car. All electric vehicles (EVs) need a network of wires and charging points to re-charge their batteries. Copper is also used in wind turbines and in electric cables needed to connect them to the grid.


Chuquicamata mine uses 4,000 litres of water per second (one Olympic swimming pool every ten minutes). The mining industry is siphoning off groundwater in this desert region where people and animals don’t have enough.


Although Antofagasta, a town of a quarter-million people, is a four-hour drive away from the mine, people breathe carcinogenic particles.


Most people in other parts of Chile die from heart disease. But in the north, about ten per cent die from lung cancer linked to the mine.


The greatest irony? The Chuquicamata mine – powering the “green” energy transition – runs on coal power!



“The Green Tech’s First Refugees”


Graphite is a mineral necessary for electric car batteries.


Demand for graphite (and other minerals) is growing by up to 25% per year, according to Ohmin Zhao, rare metals expert.



No wonder Heilongjiang province in northern China looks like Mars; miners breathe the air poisoned by hydrochloric acid and silica dust, causing lethal lung disease. They wear flimsy masks or nothing.


Around the mines, toxic dust settles on farmers’ fields, poisoning the soil and pushing people away as they can’t grow crops anymore.

But even farmers on more distant farms are affected – by illegally discharged mine wastewater. This toxic water - full of heavy metals and acids - enters rivers, land and groundwater. It kills all fish, yabbies, birds, plants, good bugs and fungi in the soil.


There are many lethal components in this wastewater, e.g. chlorine causing lower bone density, and radioactive thorium.


According to DW, this situation created “the green tech’s first refugees” – people who migrate to government-built estates due to pollution.



Cobalt Mining In The Democratic Republic Of The Congo (DRC)


Cobalt is another mineral required in electric car batteries, phones and computers. World Bank estimates demand for cobalt to rise 585% by 2050 – as our appetite for electric cars grows.


This demand isn’t only consumer-driven. Governments, especially in Europe, are committed to banning petrol and diesel cars. For example, the UK government banned the sale of conventional cars from 2030.


More than two-thirds of all global cobalt supplies are in the DRC. Miners, often children, dig for cobalt using hand-picks and buckets. For $3.50/day.


They eke out a living around the mines. If they get sick or miss a day, they don’t get paid. Miners often die on-site as the tunnels collapse above them.




But even if they work for a large industrial mine - not the small hand-dug tunnels - they barely survive. They’re employed as labourers without any contracts. But what options do they have in the moonscape of the southern DRC’s mineral belt?


The habitat had been destroyed, water is poisoned and the air is polluted.



After decades of fence-sitting, the international consensus is finally clear - to keep fossil fuels in the ground so we can slow down the impacts of climate change.


Hooray!


We ARE moving in the right direction.


But Let’s Not Kid Ourselves


As coal remains buried; copper, graphite and cobalt are being dug out at a frantic pace to facilitate the “green” transition.


One group of resources is replacing another group.


These, too, are finite and their extraction has consequences.


Let’s not pretend it’s all green and clean.


It’s Not The Green Garden Of Eden


What to do?


I like the five pegs below – but will they pin our tent to the ground?


  1. low consumption of all materials, especially the scarce ones

  2. mandatory repurpose of precious metals in cars, laptops, batteries, phones. If it can’t become a battery again, it must become something of value.

  3. mandatory buy-back schemes, where companies buy back their products containing rare minerals

  4. focus on repairing and reusing as much as possible (circular economy)

  5. keeping coal-oil-gas in the ground of course

(Keen to hear your thoughts on that ^^)


The first point is the most important.


But show me a CEO, an industrialist (“green” or traditional), or a politician who is going to push that agenda?


We are not ready for that.


Not yet.


P.S. Do you want unwrapped unplugged greensights? Join my email list here










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