Commentary: Mining for clean energy

The infrastructure for clean energy requires mining

Carl Schulze

In the past few years climate change has become front-and-centre on the radar of governments, industry and the public. This is for good reason. The increasing volatility and intensity of weather systems, including prolonged droughts, threatens the lifestyle and well-being of much of the planet’s population.

The extremely early onset of this year’s very dry spring in Yukon is a compelling piece of evidence that climate change is real.

As a result (carbon tax notwithstanding) two major movements are occurring. The world is “electrifying,” meaning it is beginning to substitute electric power for fossil fuels in vehicles, homes and larger buildings. It is also looking to alternative, “clean” (meaning non-fossil fuel) sources of electricity to do so.

One example is electric vehicles, which are much cheaper to operate (although more expensive to buy), but will place considerable pressure on energy grids for re-charging.

Currently much of the world’s clean energy comes from nuclear and hydroelectric power. Unfortunately, nuclear power is in decline, and there is a finite amount of available hydroelectric power. Hydroelectric power has the added disadvantage of requiring the flooding of large areas of land.

That leaves us with “alternative” energy sources, mainly wind and solar power, as well as geothermal and tidal power. All have disadvantages, but these are outweighed considerably by their reduced carbon footprint.

This is great stuff, but it generates a rather obvious question: Where do the materials for the infrastructure and equipment to capture solar, wind, geothermal and tidal energy come from?

Well, mainly from mining. Recycling will contribute a little, but the sharply increased demand, especially for electric vehicles, will require the discovery and development of mineral resources to make this possible.

For example, according to one report by students at the University of California, Davis’s Department of Design, 84 per cent of a wind turbine is comprised of steel and iron materials, seven per cent consists of glass composites and carbon, five per cent is polymers, one per cent is copper and copper alloys and one per cent is aluminum and aluminum alloys. The rest is electronics, processed polymers and fuels.

These things are huge and that’s a lot of steel.

Solar panels are comprised mainly of silica (90 per cent, mainly as glass), but also typically include silver, lead, cadmium, antimony, indium, gallium, tellurium and rare earth elements. Then there is the aluminum or steel required for the frames, and the copper for the wiring.

Electric cars now commonly are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which require large amounts of lithium and cobalt (these are BIG batteries). Nickel-cadmium batteries are now being replaced by nickel-hydride batteries, of which the most common variety includes nickel, cerium, neodymium, cobalt, manganese and aluminum.

Vanadium is finding increased usage in rechargeable batteries, and Platinum Group Metals (PGMs) are utilized in fuel cells. On it goes, with various metals required to capture other forms of clean energy.

In short, if we want alternative energy, these materials need to be mined.

In Canada and much of the western world, a form of “cognitive dissonance” is now prevalent. Cognitive dissonance is defined as “a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors.” It’s like “doublethink” in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

We demand clean energy, but we also demand the alienation of an increasing amount of our land base from mineral exploration and mining. We can’t have both.

Admittedly, not all elements are found everywhere. But if we sequester large areas of a nation or region from responsible exploration and mining, we reduce our chances of finding and developing these resources necessary for alternative energy. That forces continued reliance on fossil fuels.

It will be increasingly incumbent for governments of all forms, including federal, provincial/territorial, municipal and First Nation governments, to recognize the importance of retaining a large land base open to exploration and development of mineral resources.

Policies need to be developed in co-operation with all levels of government, with input by NGOs, to reflect this. These need to be applied to the land-use planning processes to begin to ensure reasonable outcomes are achieved.

The alienation of vast regions as parks and protected areas may not be the best approach to “save the planet” after all.

Carl Schulze is a director and secretary/treasurer with the Yukon Prospectors Association. He has worked as a geologist in the Yukon since 1992