Low-carbon electricity will reduce material requirements, but moving to electric vehicles increases them
I wonder about something else: all mining is done with fossil fuels. All regenerative energy is helped by fossil fuels, for instance for building, maintaining, transport, which is done with cars, trains etc. None of these are yet electric and so on. So it's not either, but both in any case.
Also: don't forget Jevons Paradox: the more efficiently we do something, the more we do it. Instead of doing it less to achieve at the same output, we do even more and have even more output. So since we started to move into "regenerative energy" we have INCREASED our consumption of fossil energy as well.
Also, what about EROI ( ➜ energy return on (energy) invested): in mining for whatever, we get less and less back because the deposits are harder to come by. If we fall under certain EROI aggregate sum for our society energy needs, we'll not be able to maintain our current level of consuming, as being said in "How everything can collapse" by Savigny/Stevens.
There is no point around us, individually and as a society, starting to decrease our (energy) consumption. I see no sign of that, not even a discussion beginning.
Is oil and gas extraction a legitimate comparison with ore extraction? While the total material requirements go down, with oil and gas there is a far lower geological 'disruption' than with mining extraction. I am making the assumption that once oil and gas is extracted, the remaining geological 'voids' have no significant detrimental impacts - and in reality isn't it the geological impact that needs to be measured, rather than the total material requirements? Obviously coal is different, but does the conclusion that low-carbon electricity will reduce material requirements still stand up if we remove oil and gas from the calculation?
Isn’t is also important to take into consideration what happens directly after materials or fuels are extracted? I would agree with coal since it requires the same ecologically disruptive mining processes as precious metals but with oil and gas you transport it and use it for energy. The materials mined for batteries, EVs, and other renewable tech needs to go through extremely energy intensive processes after it took a ton of energy to mine all of it in the first place. This requires a higher energy payment upfront compared to fossil fuels so I still don’t think we should be jumping off the cliff of energy security and high standards of living.
Thanks. You have also written useful analyses comparing the safety, emissions, and land use of different energy sources.
To complete the picture it would be vary helpful to have an comparison of different energy sources regarding
(1) the costs for electricity generation that include the costs with dealing with intermittency.
(2) the energy return on energy invested, taking into account intermittency.
(3) the time taken to reduce emissions using nuclear versus renewables.
Thank you for your analysis and particularly the inclusion of rock to mineral factors. However, I am not convinced that the comparison should be on mass per mass basis even with the waste rock volumes included. Is there any rigorous analysis of the energy requirements of mining for the energy transition?
Different minerals require different amounts of effort to get them out of the surrounding or over-laying materials. For example, copper must not only be dug up but also the ore must be crushed down to fine particles, cleaned by a flotation process and then smelted, whereas coal is usually easily mined, cleaned and used virtually as it. Their prices probably reflect the different amounts of effort - copper sells at about 8$/kg whereas coal is about 0.2$/kg, so copper requires 40 times as much effort as coal. Lithium over 100 times as much. Therefore, even though the energy transition will reduce mining requirements I suspect it will increase the effort, hence energy, requirements.
Important point on these numbers likely representing the upper bound. Even if we don't know where the innovation is coming from, it has historically come pretty dependably.
A very informative and interesting article Hannah. Backed up by some very interesting discourse and points of view in the comments. Thank you.
When you’re already in ecological overshoot a hypothetical reduction in mining (aka hey, I’m doing a bit less destruction than the other guy) is meaningless…except maybe to help reduce your cognitive dissonance.
hmm, re mining waste from electric requirements:
yes coal can require removal of overburden, but so does any above ground mine. And, except for oil sands, oil and gas are not "mined" and produce no waste. so the comparison - which had no data - doesn't hold up.
Your analysis seems to assume that all the minerals we need are out there just waiting to be mined, albeit at various grades. Would like to see how the total material demand compares to the total resources available in known and projected deposits. Do you assume we'll just keep finding more deposits as we need them, a common fallacy among folks not involved in the mineral exploration/extraction industry. Also, deposits that occur in first world countries are increasingly less likely to be developed because of widespread NIMBYism relegating most, if not all, mining to third world countries in the future. Here's a related article from last year: https://issues.org/environmental-economic-costs-minerals-solar-wind-batteries-mills/
Good post! I would be curious to see a comparison on the extraction processes and the associated emissions intensity including innovations, like recycling, and where they stand.