The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently released a report warning about the alarming rise in demand for minerals and metals caused by the excitement around renewable energies and batteries. The prospects are truly frightening. For example, the IEA sees, “mineral demand for use in [electric vehicles] and battery storage…growing at least thirty times to 2040.” Essentially, in order to transition to a reliance on these new technologies, we will need to scrape open the earth, dig out finite resources, and burn fuel as we mine and transport renewable energy minerals around the globe.
The IEA shares some jaw dropping numbers: “A typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car.” Per MW of power, an offshore wind plant requires more than 15,000 kg and seven different types of minerals, including 8,000 kg of copper, 5,500 kg of zinc, 790 kg of manganese and 525 kg of chromium. In comparison, per MW of power, a natural gas plant requires only 1/9 as much in minerals and only two types of minerals—1100 kg of copper and only 48.3 kg of chromium.
To judge the future of mineral use, the IEA looked at how much “clean energy technologies” will need these minerals as a share of the total demand for them if the world pursues IEA’s own Sustainable Development Scenario for 2040. In 2020, “clean energy technologies” accounted for 29% of lithium demand, but the IEA now forecasts that this sector will account for a whopping 92% of lithium demand by 2040. Rare earth elements demand will rise from 16% to 41% in that time period. And this rise is due entirely to increased need, meaning we will soon struggle to find minerals. We will also need to interfere with more and more habitats to quench our thirst for these “clean energy technologies.”
According to the IEA’s own data, solar and wind power generation only accounted for less than 7% of total global electricity in 2018, the last year for which data is available. It is not hard to imagine the devastation for the world’s resources and habitats if we pursue minerals at a pace necessary to increase that percentage over the coming decades. As the global population grows and continues to modernize, the need for electricity will only increase over the years, decades and centuries. Will there be anything left if we keep mining and ignore other sources of energy?
It turns out that a transition to renewables like solar and wind along with the adoption of battery power in place of combustion engines is as unsustainable in the long run as is reliance on purely carbon-based fuel. Neither idea works. If we commit to only these new non-carbon technologies, we will approach a scarcity of necessary minerals at some point, but not until after we have plundered the earth with mines and strip mines, interfering with the landscape and habitats of plants and animals around the planet.
A Smarter Path Forward
We could be wiser about our energy supply and instead of narrowing it to renewables, diversifying it. The solution to a modern and high-tech future that also preserves our planet is a diverse combination of energy types. And among these diverse energies, there should be a prominent place for propane. Propane, itself, can be used for a wide range of needs, from heating to power generation to cooking to transportation.
Propane is odorless and clear. Moreover, it is safe and doesn’t pollute if, by chance, it leaks. It is a great source of safe heating, cooking and power generation (especially in emergencies) for specified locations. It can also be used as a reliable and relatively environmentally friendly vehicle fuel source. That is why the U.S. government deemed it an “alternative fuel” under the Energy Policy Act in 1992.
Propane is a byproduct of natural gas processing and oil refining, so it is produced when processing other fuels. This means its own impact in the upstream process is limited. Accessing propane does not entail ripping open the earth and disrupting habitats across the globe like mineral mining does. Perhaps the most important reason for the U.S. to integrate propane into a diversified energy strategy is that it is produced domestically in abundance. In contrast, many of the minerals needed for batteries and “clean energy technologies” must be sourced globally and are often produced by China or in artisanal mines in places like the Republic of Congo.
Let’s pursue the integration of renewables into our energy mix but let’s not look away from the costs that renewables themselves create.