Downside of Green Energy Unplanned
Windmills and solar farms come with their own environmental baggage, but who is planning for it? Nobody.
At The Conversation, Richard K. Valenta, Laura Sonter and James Watson (not the geneticist) warn, “Renewable energy can save the natural world – but if we’re not careful, it will also hurt it.” They are proponents of green energy, in other words, but they have some worries that it comes at a cost. In particular, building renewable energy arrays requires a lot of dirty mining operations. Windmills and solar farms do not emerge from the environment. The materials, including metals, often have to come from far away, including from third-world countries without clean mining practices.
Those metals include
- lithium, graphite and cobalt (mostly used in battery storage)
- zinc and titanium (used mostly for wind and geothermal energy)
- copper, nickle and aluminium (used in a range of renewable energy technologies)
The “mining threat” can hurt animals and plants, and also cause human exploitation.
The World Bank estimates the production of such materials could increase by 500% by 2050. It says more than 3 billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be needed to build the wind, solar and geothermal power, and energy storage, needed to keep global warming below 2℃ this century.
However, mining can seriously damage species and places. It destroys natural habitat, and surrounding environments can be harmed by the construction of transport infrastructure such as roads and railways.
These risks are in addition to the harm to birds and bats from spinning wind turbine blades, loss of scenic beauty, and threats to power outages when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. Additionally, it will require fossil fuels to run the railroads, ships and trucks to move materials to the renewable energy sites – unless someone can invent locomotives that run on solar panels or windmills.
The three wrote a paper in Nature Communications, “Renewable energy production will exacerbate mining threats to biodiversity.” In the concluding paragraph, they speak as if the world is rushing into renewables without counting the cost or even knowing what they are doing.
There is urgent need to understand the size of mining risks to biodiversity (climate change, and efforts to avert it) and strategically account for them in conservation plans and policies. Yet, none of these potential tradeoffs are seriously considered in international climate policies, nor are new mining threats addressed in global discussions around post-2020 United Nation’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. Necessary actions include strengthening policies to avoid negative consequences of mining in places fundamentally important for conservation outcomes, and developing necessary landscape plans that explicitly address current and future mining threats. These actions must also be supported by a significant research effort to overcome current knowledge deficits. A systematic understanding of the spatially explicit consequences (rather than potential threats, as investigated here) of various mining activities on specific biodiversity features, including those that occur in marine systems and at varying distances from mine sites (rather than within a predefined distance of 50 km, as done here), is required.
Consequences for biodiversity can extend many miles from the actual mining sites. “Strong planning and conservation action is needed to avoid, manage and prevent the harm mining causes to the environment,” they say at The Conversation. “However global conservation efforts are often naive to the threats posed by significant growth in renewable energies.”
Fools rush in where do-gooder politicians throw money at a problem. Visions of free energy from wind and sun seem like lovely dreams till the real work has to get done. The damage to habitats may come far too late for repair. What’s most alarming about this article and paper is the authors’ contention that nobody thought this through.