Renewable Energy Is Mined, Not Grown

Mining Probably Isn’t One Of The First Things That Comes To Mind When People Think About Renewable Energy Sources, But It Should Be.

By Brian Hendrix

By 2035, the Biden administration expects the United States to generate “100% carbon pollution free electricity.” Longer term, the administration’s ultimate goal is “net-zero emissions no later than 2050.” 

I doubt that “carbon free” sources will generate all of our electricity by 2035 (or by 2050) and am deeply skeptical that we will emit less carbon than we remove from the atmosphere (net zero) by 2050. Why? One reason is mine permitting. 

Environmental standards in the UK, Australia and Canada are quite strict, but it takes just two to three years to permit a new mine in those countries. The permitting process for a new mine in the United States is second to none, and not in a good way. It is one of – if not THE – slowest and most expensive in the world. On average, it takes seven to 10 years just to permit a new mine here. To achieve the growth in renewables that the administration expects, that must change. 

Mining probably isn’t one of the first things that comes to mind when people think about renewable energy sources, but it should be. If it can’t be grown, it must be mined, and renewable energy sources like wind and solar certainly aren’t grown. 

To generate a massive amount of wind and solar energy by 2035 or 2050, we will need to mine a massive amount of building materials (e.g., aggregates), metals (e.g., silver, copper, aluminum) and minerals (e.g., taconite, lithium, cobalt, metallurgical coal) in a relatively short period of time. 

Take wind power, for example. A single, three-megawatt wind turbine contains roughly 1,200 tons of concrete, 335 tons of steel, 4.7 tons of copper, 3 tons of aluminum and 2 tons of rare earth minerals. That’s just for the turbine. 

The tally doesn’t include all the materials, metals and minerals in the conductors, transformers, storage (batteries), etc. required for a wind farm. Also, that’s for just one wind turbine. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), “the average wind generating facility in the United States consists of about 50 turbines.” The largest wind farm, located in California, has 586 turbines. 

Meeting the Goal
To meet the administration’s goals for wind, we’ll need 50,000 to 100,000 more wind turbines. We have approximately 89,000 wind turbines in the United States and U.S. territories now. They account for roughly 9% of our electrical generating capacity, but we are quite far from the administration’s goals for wind. 

To meet the administration’s 2035 goal, we’ll need wind to generate two to four times more electricity than it does today. Also, keep in mind that the “capacity” of a wind turbine to generate electricity isn’t the actual amount of power that it will produce. The actual output of a wind turbine varies based on seasonal patterns and geographic location, ranging from 25% to 55%. 

I picked wind to illustrate the point here, but it holds just as well for solar. Massive increases in renewable power – solar and wind – are necessary to meet the administration’s goals, and that will require a tremendous amount of mined materials. 

Testifying before Congress recently, Michael Shellenberger explained that “[s]olar and wind energy projects require roughly 300% more copper and 700% more rare earths than fossil fuels, per unit of energy. Wind, solar, and batteries require 1,000% more steel, concrete and glass; 300% more copper; and 4,200%, 2,500%, 1,900%, and 700% more lithium, graphite, nickel, and rare earths, respectively, than fossil fuels, to produce the same amount of energy.” 

The massive demand for renewables (and it really is massive) will require an equally massive demand for mined materials. You cannot have one without the other. 

That is the demand side of the equation. What about the supply? Put simply, it’s short. To meet the demand, we’ll need a mining boom on a global scale. 

Let’s use copper as an example. S&P Global recently explained that “[c]opper – the “metal of electrification” – is essential to all energy transition plans. But the potential supply-demand gap is expected to be very large as the transition proceeds . . . Unless massive new supply comes online in a timely way, the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 will be short-circuited and remain out of reach.” 

This brings us back to our original point about mine permitting. S&P Global, again focusing on copper, recognizes that “it is not difficult to block a new mine,” particularly in the United States, where:

the permitting and litigation process determines the speed at which a mine will be developed or whether it will be developed at all . . . Many projects fail during the permitting or litigation process . . . The process can often take many years and hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars before the first shovel is turned . . . The possibility of legal intervention during all stages of the permitting process is particularly acute . . . with multiple opportunities for delays and injunctions. In nearly every jurisdiction, a new mine seeking permission today would not be productive until the late 2030s.

This is the status quo. It’s the current process. Navigating it is expensive and enormously time consuming, and the outcome is highly uncertain. The process makes it relatively easy to kill a new mine. What this means is that the supply of mined materials won’t meet the demand unless the process changes. The administration’s goals for renewable energy will not be met without permitting reform.

On the Agenda
In Congress, permitting reform is on the agenda. So far though, Congress is (to paraphrase Aaron Sorkin) hewing to tradition, i.e., it is saying a lot about permitting reform without actually doing anything about it. I hope that changes. 

Renewables are booming. We’re adding solar and wind capacity at a record clip. While I doubt “carbon free” sources will generate all of our electricity by 2035, I’m not 100% certain of that. 

I’m not 100% certain the administration’s goals are impossible to achieve because, as history has taught us, predictions are hard, especially about the future. 

Brian Hendrix is a partner at Husch Blackwell LLP. As a member of the Energy & Natural Resources group, he advises clients on environmental, health and safety law, with a focus on litigation, incident investigations, enforcement defense and regulatory compliance counseling. He can be reached at [email protected].

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