MAC: Mines and Communities

Renewable energy: built on a Faustian bargain?

Published by MAC on 2017-07-22
Source: Desmog Canada (2017-07-20)

Is climate change mitigation dependent on increasingly irresponsible - and destructive - mining?

After all, solar panels - often cited as the prime source of "renewable" energy - require major inputs of copper, silica, lead, and rare earths in their construction.

The author of the following article says that, in the rush to capture energy from the Sun:

"Unfortunately, nobody has figured out how to dramatically reduce the associated demand for metals and minerals...This offers up a potentially massive opportunity for Canadian mining companies, with investors hunting for new places to profit in the wake of the global oil price crash".

Why We Need to Clean Up Mining if We Want a Renewable Energy Economy

By James Wilt

Desmog Canada

20 July 2017 A massive open-pit copper mine might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about solar power.

But the construction of photovoltaic panels actually require a wide range of metals and minerals to build. Nineteen, to be exact, including silica, indium, silver, selenium and lead. Most can be found or produced in Canada.

And as demand for solar panels continues to rapidly increase in coming years — up to a 17-fold global increase between 2015 and 2050, according to the International Energy Agency — significant quantities of these metals and minerals will be required.

“It quickly dawns on you that an awful lot of panels go into producing all these gigawatts of solar power,” said Dan Woynillowicz, policy director at Clean Energy Canada and lead author of a recent report titled “Mining for Clean Energy,” in an interview with DeSmog Canada.

“Obviously that creates a demand for materials.”

It also creates some serious concerns about the environmental, social and cultural impacts of mining. Recent years have seen a series of mining-related disasters in Canada, most notably the devastating Mount Polley tailings dam collapse in August 2014. As a result, critics contend that mining practices must be addressed now, before demand continues to grow.

“If we don’t couple climate mitigation infrastructure with responsible mining, we’ve got a trainwreck coming,” said Alan Young, director of the Ottawa-based Materials Efficiency Research Group, in an interview with DeSmog Canada.

“We’re either going to have interruptions of supply or we’re going to build clean energy on dirty mining.”

Solar power is growing at an exponential rate around the world.

In 2016, more than 76 gigawatts in solar photovoltaic panels were installed, increasing the global total to 305 gigawatts. Much of that growth happened in China, which added a substantial 34 gigawatts in solar capacity.

And the price only keeps falling. According to a recent report from Morgan Stanley, solar panel costs dropped another 50 per cent between 2016 and 2017.

Growth in solar capacity has been slower in Canada. The Canadian Solar Industries Association reports that by the end of 2015, the country only sported 2.5 gigawatts in capacity, almost entirely in Ontario (which introduced a feed-in tariff in 2009 to help incentivize solar installations).

But that’s changing. Canadian Solar Industries Association predicts that by 2020, Canada will have close to 6.3 gigawatts in installed solar capacity.

That transition will be aided by programs like Alberta’s new $36 million rebate program for residential solar installations, as well as federally mandated carbon pricing (which will make renewables even more competitive with gas-fired power plants).

Unfortunately, nobody has figured out how to dramatically reduce the associated demand for metals and minerals. That’s already created scares about future availability of some necessary components.

That combo offers up a potentially massive opportunity for Canadian mining companies, with investors hunting for new places to profit in the wake of the global oil price crash.

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