Seeing the words “mining” and “green” in the same sentence is a relatively new concept. Mining has typically been viewed around the world as a dirty, unsustainable practice. How are companies incorporating new green energy concepts into traditional mining practices?
Companies are mining green energy manufacturing materials for solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars, while simultaneously pursuing low to net-zero emissions. This is currently being done with new technologies while acknowledging that many old mining methods are still needed for now.
In this article, we share some indicators that have pushed mining towards a more sustainable process and several current developments in the green energy mining sector. We will also share some promising studies that may show future developments in this sector.
Mining for Green Energy’s Meaning
Products for green energy such as wind turbines, solar panels, batteries, and electric cars require materials to be manufactured. Many of the green energy materials required, like aluminum, cobalt, and lithium, are mined from the planet.
In a single solar panel, there can be as much as 19 minerals and metals or more. Many of these metals are “critical mineral commodities” that have resource supply issues.
Mining for Green energy is the continued effort to supply the materials required to create a fully green energy source. This will take time and effort, as well as trial and error by the entire planet, to create and transition to a new source of clean energy technology.
The Role of Critical Minerals Commodities in the Clean Energy Transition
The role of critical minerals commodities in clean energy transitions is central to the planet’s goal of Net Zero carbon emissions. We can’t build more clean energy technology without the critical minerals used in the manufacturing process.
The Paris Agreement was set up to reduce carbon emissions to limit human caused climate change and slow the global temperature increase this century by 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
This carbon reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions would require humans to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees and described in the United Nations ‘race to zero’ to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2050.
“The United States Geological Survey has released a new list of 50 mineral commodities critical to the U.S. economy and national security after an extensive multi-agency assessment.”U.S. Geological Survey Releases 2022 List of Critical Minerals
U.S.G.S. Critical Mineral Commodities in Renewable Energy List Combined with 50 Mineral Commodities Listed as Critical by the U.S. Department of the Interior 2022
|Balance of 50 Critical Minerals
Understanding the Path Toward Mining for Green Energy
There seems to be an oversimplification when talking about sustainable energy sources and development. We are eager to be at the point where energy development is “green” and clean, but what is required to get us from where we currently are to that place of sustainability?
They are not making green electronics, electric, or hybrid cars a new way; they still require old-fashioned steel, aluminum, silica, glass, and lithium, to name a few which are all produced from raw mined mineral ore.
It is this very gap that needs further discussion and public awareness. Several recent studies have shown that to meet our sustainable energy goals, we must first embrace less green energy techniques to support sustainable energy development.
While the popular rhetoric on the topic is to cease all traditional energy development techniques in favor of green alternatives, there is little discussion of how to accomplish that. After all, what are wind turbines made from, for example? How are they transported from the manufacturer to the location of the installation?
To answer the question, wind turbines are made from mostly steel and fiberglass, and smaller amounts of iron, copper, and aluminum. Mining, transport, manufacturing, and installation are all labor and energy intensive in the production of wind turbines. For installation they are transported by semi tractor trailer in pieces to the building site.
It is all too easy to forget the realities of bringing new technologies to market and what has to happen for that development and manufacturing to occur. It is far more complex than many of us realize.
We are not in any way saying we should eschew new energy developments because they require traditional energy sources for manufacture. Instead, let’s acknowledge that in order to arrive at a more sustainable energy production capacity, we can’t cease traditional energy development methods.
U.S Power Grid Expansion Main Three Mined Mineral Requirements Projection
Spurred by EV’s, the U.S. power grid will require twice the amount of mined aluminum, copper, and steel by 2040 and possibly tripled by 2050.
|Mined Metal Required SDS in Tonnes
Electric cars and trucks will become the norm, not the exception in the next 20 years, based on many projections. The power grid will obviously be the new Electric Vehicle Fuel Source.
The U.S. Power Grid will have to grow to meet the demand of the charging requirements of the electric car industry, which will require more minerals and mining.
There are also extensive supply shortages of some of these metals expected as well as great competition between the U.S. and China. There is a huge copper deficit expected by 2030.
Recent Developments in the Green Energy Mining Industry
There are exciting developments on the horizon for green energy as it relates to the mining industry. Remember to temper excitement for these developments with the understanding that traditional methods are still needed to supply these technologies with materials.
Local Mine Mini-Power Grids Powered by Wind, Solar, Geothermal, or Mini-Hydroelectric Plants
A company called Enel Green Power, a renewable energies company, is partnering with the mining industry. They provide clean energy to mining companies thanks to their global geographic reach and resources. They work with the mining industry, around the world in the United States, Canada, Australia, South America, and Southern Africa.
Enel Green Power supplies mines energy through electricity grid with renewable sources. They also can provide energy to mines in areas outside the reach of traditional power grids. They create local mini-grids powered by wind, solar, geothermal or mini-hydroelectric plants.
They also have innovative renewable sources that can be integrated with green hydrogen, produced from water through electrolysis powered by 100% renewable energy.
Volcanic Gasses Rich in Heavy Metals
One interesting study being conducted by scientists at the University of Oxford is looking at ways to harness the power of volcanoes for purposes of green energy production.
Scientists studying volcanic gasses realized that there are certain gasses that are rich in heavy metals. As the gasses rise towards the earth’s surface, the pressure drops, which separate the volcanic gasses into two substances; steam and brine.
The steam quickly evaporates off above the surface, but the brine, which contains the heavy metal compounds, sinks back down below the surface. The study, released in Open Science, shares that the brine contains valuable metals, including copper, lithium, and gold.
The scientific model that was built on this research suggests that millions of tons of copper could be extracted from this brine. Copper is a crucial metal in the development of electric technology and green battery technology.
As you can imagine, the methodology needed to extract precious metals suspended in brine from within a volcano doesn’t exist and would need extensive development. In the meantime, traditional mining methods remain a crucial piece to successfully tapping into this new source of resources.
While this one example of current research shows great promise for the green energy sector, it’s crucial to remember that we can’t arrive at a net-zero emission state immediately or even quickly.
Green Mining Lithium in the U.S.
Tesla and China started the trend of using lithium for its electric car batteries. Almost a third of all EV batteries are Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP) batteries as of 2021.
Coal-powered power plants in China control the electric vehicle and battery market, producing most of the world’s supply of lithium-ion batteries.
Most lithium mining is currently done in places like Australia, Asia and South America. Currently, Silverpeak, Nevada, has the only operating source of lithium and evaporation plants in the United States and is one of the most desolate places on earth.
What’s next for Lithium Mining in the United States?
The lithium mining industry has taken the initiative to pursue more mining in the United States. One such mine is scheduled to be started in the economically depressed desert area of Southern California, known as the Salton Sea.
A company called Energy Source Minerals is going to recover lithium from 600 degree geothermal brine pumped from the ground that is the power source for an existing geothermal electric plant.
The existing geothermal electrical power plant uses underground thermal energy brine now to create energy from clean steam. After using the brine instead of pumping it back into the ground it will now be pumped to a new processing facility and create the lithium necessary for millions of new (LFP) batteries to power electric vehicles.
The brine is pumped through a set of filters to extract the lithium. This is a win-win situation for clean energy by using a natural resource like geothermal brine twice instead of once before pumping it back into the ground.
This process and others like it will be used to create a new higher profile lithium mining industry in the United States that could supply approximately half of the world’s lithium supplies instead of being dependent on foreign countries like China.
What Does the Future Hold for the Green Energy Sector?
Green technology manufacturing requires non-renewable raw materials sourced from primary resources like terrestrial mines or secondary supply of reuse or recycling. Green energy is the future of the energy sector overall, but where does mining for green energy fit into the picture?
Some sources argue that the idea of green mining is simply “greenwashing” a dirty industry to promote itself in a new era.
This could be true, but we argue that it doesn’t have to be the case. There is an argument to be made that traditional mining practices must continue in some form to support green energy development methods.
Green Energy Mining Future Scenarios
One possible future scenario for green energy development is the development of alternative materials that can replace those currently harvested through traditional mining techniques.
Some materials, such as copper or lithium, may not be easily supplanted by new substances, but perhaps advances in artificial intelligence and synthetics could help ease the global burden of producing materials like steel or aluminum.
Other possible future developments could include finding ways to blend traditional materials in a way that eases mining pressures while still producing and allowing the same result as the more pure version of the material.
Regardless of how, it is clear that there will be continued pressure, legislation, and a need to replace fossil fuel-consuming technologies with technologies that consume a fraction of the volume or are driven by other fuels altogether.
It’s important to acknowledge that other pressures on green energy development exist as well. As an example, electric vehicles still occupy a minority of the market share, despite technological advancement along with financial incentives to make the switch.
Yet, many wonder why electric vehicles haven’t fully replaced the internal combustion engine entirely. There are many speculative theories on the subject online, but the general sentiment is that electric will eventually hold a majority share of the market.
That is ideally so, but we are farther from that goal than many realize. It isn’t because of cost or perception, production, or materials. Rather, it all boils down to outdated infrastructure and a power grid that can’t support most of the electric vehicles in the U.S.
As we look ahead to the future of green technology, it is critical that we not take such a myopic view as to miss larger-scale issues that may prevent us from meeting future goals.
What Can Each of Us Do To Support Green Energy Development?
At what point do the scales begin to tip from traditional methods, which are less expensive than newer, more sustainable methods? Do we ever fully make the transition from traditional mining to mining practices for green energy?
That is up to each of us. It is so easy to say that the industry is “bad” or not respecting the planet, but ultimately, consumers drive demand, which then drives production. Each one of us is telling the industry what we will or will not tolerate through the simple consumer choices that we make.
If every one of us takes responsibility for the way we consume physical things, the companies we support with our hard-earned dollars, and the representatives that we vote into office to represent our interests as opposed to industry interests, we might one day see those scales tip.
We must each decide what matters most. Price point or sustainability? And we must follow through on this decision by voting with our voice, our actual vote, and our dollars.
Recycling of Mined Materials
Many of the world’s mined materials such as steel and aluminum can be recycled. Recycling won’t replace all mined materials, but it certainly should be part of our long-term plan on earth to always recycle everything we can.
The future demand for minerals is based on the expected life of energy technologies. As an example, the life span of a of commercial wind turbine is about twenty to twenty-five years. There are, of course, wind turbines in the world that have been well maintained and have run for forty years.
Disposing or recycling giant wind turbines is a formidable task just to move or dismantle them, especially at sea.
EV Battery Recycling
There is a huge amount of used electric vehicle batteries coming in the next 20 years that will have to be dealt with all over the globe. Recycling in many areas is almost nonexistent, for instance, in Lithium-ion batteries that are the power sources in many laptops, smartphones, and electric cars.
There is some solutions like Battery Recyclers of America who provide next-day pickup of electric vehicle batteries in all 50 states. They charge for the service and it is broken up between two designations fo over and under 1,000 lbs.
Lithium-ion batteries are made of non-toxic materials, which makes them known as “green batteries” and can last from 8 to 10 years.
Recycling at the complete end of life of EV batteries such as lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries or the newer lithium iron phosphate (LFP or Li-FP) batteries is far from figured out yet. Getting the recycled batteries material back into the supply chain is extremely important for the clean energy industry.
Problems with Green Mining Technology
There are, of course, a multitude of problems with mining in general, from environmental impact to supply and demand.
There is everything from toxic materials and byproducts, open pit and abandoned underground mines throughout the world to total environmental devastation in areas of the planet from a repeated disregard for the people or the land in many areas.
The Problem with The Pebble Mine and Wild Salmon in Alaska
The Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska is a proposed copper, gold, and molybdenum mine in the Bristol Bay region.
The Pebble Mine has mostly low-grade ore, requiring a large-scale operation to extract it from the ground. The only way to do that is by creating a massive open-pit mine.
The problem with the Pebble Mine is it is near the world’s largest salmon fishery. Pollutants and runoff from metals and ore refining would impact ground water and disrupt or destroy fish breeding grounds.
Cobalt Mining’s Environmental Impact
Cobalt is used in electric vehicle batteries, and is a problem both for the environment and communities. Cobalt mines produce toxic residues that can leach deadly chemicals that can poison groundwater and, as illegal toxic dumping, are devastating landscapes, polluting rivers and streams, and destroying lives.
Smelting cobalt ore produces toxic fumes with a high concentration of sulfur oxide and other air pollutants.
Population Growth and Chasing Resources
No article on energy resources would be complete without talking about human overpopulation and the chasing of resources. This scenario is to facilitate another 1 billion people on planet earth every 14 years, as has been the pace for the last 40 years.
Animal overpopulation occurs when an ecosystem is unable to support the existing wildlife because there are too many of a given species.The Effects of Animal Overpopulation | Sciencing
No one wants to discuss the elephant in the room and discuss why you cannot have unlimited growth economies on a finite planet.
There is no future mined material supply pace that can keep up with facilitating 9, 10, or 11 billion people and their cities, electric cars and power grid needs.
Mining in some form or another is necessary for virgin mineral resources. It is likely that humans will mine on the moon and other planets the first chance they get.
Mining for green energy is a crucial path forward toward sustainable energy development worldwide. Failure to hit net-zero goals quickly isn’t a reason to eschew efforts to improve. Instead, we should focus on incremental progress, influencing the path to sustainability every chance we get.
Green energy and new cleaner mining processes are achievable, like geothermal power sources combined with lithium mining and other new and promising innovations.
- Mining.com: Two Simple Charts Show Why Green Energy Is All About Mining
- University of Oxford: Oxford Scientists Show How Green Mining Could Pave The Way to Net Zero and Provide the Metals We Need For a Sustainable Future
- Royal Society Open Science: The Economic Potential of Metaliferous Sub-Volcanic Brines
- European Environmental Bureau: “Green Mining” Is a Myth: The Case for Cutting EU Resource Consumption
- University of Arizona: The World in 2050:Cleaner Mining For Greener Energy
- Tech Evaluate: US Power Grid Is The Problem With The Future Of Electric Vehicles