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Moving toward a clean energy future

by Walter Rowntree
| November 22, 2022 12:00 AM

When I imagine our clean energy future, I imagine it as amazing. I picture cleaner air, better health, cheaper, more efficient energy, and most importantly, an end to planet heating emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. This isn’t to say there won’t be some bumps along the road but this is the case with any new enterprise.

We will have to figure out how to recycle the materials in solar panels, for example. Right now, old solar panels end up in the landfill. This is a problem but it has a solution. Estimates are that the value of recyclable materials from solar panels will balloon in the next several years at the same time as technological advancements will make it easier to extract valuable materials from old panels. Together, these developments will make solar panel recycling into a profitable venture.

Construction of wind turbines, solar panels and storage batteries require mined minerals; however, once we’ve fully transitioned to clean energy, the need for mined materials ends, as the fuel (wind and sunshine) is provided by nature and battery materials are readily recycled. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, require endless mining or drilling for new fuel to burn.

For example, nearly 8 billion tons of coal were mined, and over 4 billion tons of crude oil were extracted globally in 2020. By comparison, the World Bank estimates that a pathway to meet the Paris targets would require only 3.5 billion tons of minerals in total over the next three decades. A December 2021 paper by Rice University researchers estimated that generating energy from wind turbines in Texas would require five times less earth-moving and waste than an equivalent amount of coal power.

The mining of lithium for rechargeable batteries has adverse environmental effects, but the primary purpose of the green economy isn’t to eliminate mining, it’s to eliminate fossil fuels. The mining of materials for batteries, wind turbines and solar panels isn’t in addition to the mining of fossil fuels, it’s a replacement for the mining of fossil fuels. Additionally, as demand for electric vehicles and utility scale batteries increases, solutions to problematic issues are presenting themselves. For example, water pumped underground to extract heat in geothermal power plants can yield lithium in a much less environmentally harmful way than mining. Progress is also being made in the development of nickel-zinc and sodium-ion batteries;nickel, zinc, and sodium are some of Earth’s most abundant elements . Researchers are also finding ways to greatly improve lithium batteries to make them smaller and lighter and use less mined material.

Importantly, while we’ll need considerable mineral mining to meet growing battery demand in the coming decades, the metals in batteries can be recycled. In the future, much of the minerals needed for clean technologies will be supplied through recycling rather than the continued mining of natural resources. EV batteries have also lasted much longer than expected — essentially a vehicle’s entire lifetime — and afterwards can be used for electric grid storage.

What about the environmental impact of driving an EV? Based on current average U.S. power grid mix, driving an EV generates greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to an 88 mile per gallon (mpg) gasoline-fueled car.

An analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that even in the regions with the dirtiest electric grid mix, driving an EV will generate the same greenhouse gas emissions as a 39 mpg gas car. In numerous regions, driving an EV produces less carbon pollution than a 100 mpg gasoline car. And these numbers will only improve over time as the electric grid becomes cleaner.

People often wonder about the extra emissions associated with manufacturing EV batteries, and the extra weight they add to the vehicle. These are referred to as “indirect emissions,” but to make a fair comparison, we also need to consider the indirect emissions of gasoline cars — the drilling, refining, and transportation of oil.

A 2021 study did just that and found that EV’s come out way ahead. Accounting for all indirect emissions further reduces EVs’ carbon footprints compared to those from gasoline-fueled cars, because constantly producing more gasoline creates more greenhouse gas emissions than manufacturing and charging EV batteries.

There are other issues that will need to be addressed, including human rights abuses related to mineral mining. Energy efficiency, mass transit, walking and biking will remain important because even clean energy will never be zero impact. However, as we move forward towards our amazing clean energy future, we can be confident in our ability to to address issues as they come up. We are only limited by boundless ingenuity.

Walter Rowntree lives in Kalispell.

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