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  • Writer's pictureGregory Andrews

Fact Over Fiction: Mining Impacts Of Renewable Energy

Climate change denialists make a lot of stuff up. One of their many claims is that renewable energy technologies - batteries, wind farms and solar panels - require more mining than fossil fuels, thus making them more harmful to the environment. Suffice to say, the facts and data show they're wrong.

Renewable energy systems require substantially less mining and resource extraction than fossil fuels, particularly when assessed from a lifecycle analysis perspective. The "renewable" part of renewables is a big part of that. Fossil fuels are mined and used once to create energy. They require more mining for more use. Renewables, on the other hand, are durable. And their components are valuable and recyclable at the end of their lifespans. This means that transitioning to renewables requires less, not more, mining.

This chart comparing coal and lithium mining tells a big part of the story. But there's more. Read on for analysis, facts and data that can help you counter misinformation.

Understanding Lifecycle Analysis

Lifecycle analysis (LCA) is a method used to assess the environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product's life, from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and disposal or recycling. When we apply LCA to energy technologies, it is overwhelmingly evident that renewable energy systems are far less detrimental to the environment compared to fossil fuels. Fossil fuels produce energy for a few seconds before they're burnt. Renewables can produce energy for decades before being decommissioned and recycled.

Lower Greenhouse Gas Emissions

One of the most significant findings from LCA studies is the stark difference in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions between renewables and fossil fuels. The US Government's National Renewable Energy Laboratory reports that renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydropower have life cycle GHG emissions that are 400 to 1,000 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour lower than fossil fuels. This is a critical advantage in tackling the climate crisis, as reducing GHG emissions is essential for limiting global warming.

Mining and Resource Extraction

It's true that renewable technologies require certain minerals for their production. For example, lithium and cobalt are essential for battery manufacturing, while rare earth elements are used in wind turbines, solar panels and EVs. But the environmental impact of extracting these minerals is much less harmful than that of fossil fuels. Given the fact that renewables are "renewable", the miniing only has to occur once for their production of energy over many decades. In contrast, fossil fuels have to be mined again and again because they're burned each time they create energy.

Extraction and combustion of fossil fuels involves extensive mining impacts, significant land degradation, and substantial water and air pollution. Global coal production, for example, is approximately 52 thousand times higher than global lithium production - 8.9 billion tonnes for coal compared to 170,800 tonnes for lithium in 2023. Coal mining not only devastates landscapes and water tables, but also releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Additionally, the process of burning fossil fuels releases large quantities of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, which have severe health and environmental consequences. Harvard University has assessed that burning of fossil fuels causes an estimated 8.7 million deaths annually due to air pollution-related illnesses​.

In contrast, while the initial mining for renewables is necessary and not negligible, the operational phase and recyclability of renewable energy systems is far cleaner. Wind and solar farms produce electricity without emitting pollutants. Furthermore, advancements in technology are improving the efficiency and sustainability of mineral extraction and the processing and recycling of elements needed for renewables. Recycling of batteries and electronic waste is increasingly reducing the need for new raw materials and minimising environmental impacts. 95% of the materials in car batteries is valuable and can be recycled.

Economic and Social Benefits

Beyond environmental considerations, transitioning to renewable energy brings substantial economic, social and employment benefits. Renewable energy industries create more jobs compared to fossil fuels. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, renewable energy employment worldwide has already reached over 12 million, with potential for significant growth as the sector expands. This job creation spans various roles, from manufacturing and installation to maintenance and research, offering opportunities for economic development and community empowerment.

Moreover, renewables contribute to energy security by reducing dependency on imported fuels and providing a more resilient, reliable and lower-cost energy infrastructure. In Australia, with our abundant solar and wind, investing in renewables can enhance energy independence and stability, and thus protect our economy and communities from volatile fossil fuel markets.

So to sum up, the argument that renewable energy technologies are more harmful to the environment due to their mining requirements doesn't stack up against the facts. Renewables, despite requiring specific minerals, have far lower overall environmental impacts compared to fossil fuels. They offer substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, less mining, lower pollution, and significant economic and social benefits. Embracing renewable energy is not only environmentally responsible but also the economically and socially beneficial path forward.

As we face the climate crisis, its important not to get distracted or diverted by climate change denialists and the fossil fuel industry. We must move beyond fear, empty arguments and outdated ideas. It's essential to focus on the fact that renewable energy brings undeniable benefits to our economy, society and planet.

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