Renewables, green energy, circular economy.
With the ever-increasing environmental conscience and world leaders more and more committed to sustainable energy, the variety of impacts that renewables can have on the environment is too often overlooked.
The aim of this series is to examine what are the negative effects of the use and development of renewable energy technologies on the environment that they aim to protect.
Yet, a premise is necessary. Analyzing the drawbacks of renewable energy must not be equated with a bias for fossil sources, but with the willingness to understand not only the potential, but also what negative effects the energy transition could possibly bring.
As for this purpose one article would not be enough, this is the first one of a series aimed at tackling the issue of the environmental impact of renewable energy, starting from the topic of rare earths.
Rare Earths: what are they and what are used for
With rare earth elements it is meant a set of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table that have become essential in a variety of high-tech uses, ranging from the miniaturization of electronics, telecommunications and defense systems, to their application in green energy technologies.
Despite being called rare, these materials are actually quite abundant and widespread all over the globe. The most recently released US Geological Survey estimates global reserves being equal to 120 million metric tons.
The materials are therefore not rare in themselves, but it is uncommon to find them in quantities significant enough to really support economic mineral development and a relevant amount of time and energy is required to extract them. These considerations are the reason why these 17 vital chemical elements are so precious.
Even though rare earths are available in many parts of the world, not everywhere are extracted at the same pace, or even extracted at all.
China became the global dominant producer (and consumer) of rare earths since the 1990s, quickly accounting for more than 95% world production. Again, according to the 2018 US Geological Survey, China mined 105,000 mmt out of world total 130,000 mmt of rare earths in 2017.
Rare Earths and Green Energy
Rare earth elements are essential to renewable energies. Wind turbines and hybrid cars require neodymium, lanthanum is used to produce highly developed rechargeable batteries and cars’ catalytic converters are produced with the use of cerium.
Renewable energy can only be produced with the use of non-renewable raw materials, such as rare earths. These metals are required in very small amount in energy devices, and yet, are highly pollutant.
China, as already said, is by far the biggest world producer of rare earths. High concentrations can be found in the Jiangxi province and especially around the city of Ganzhou, named by the government already in 2012, a “rare earths kingdom”.
The mining of these precious materials is carried out relentlessly, with no pollution mitigation measures in place. A high quantity of acids is poured in holes containing clay, to separate it from rare earth elements. Before being send to markets these are purified in acid baths. The remaining clay is useless and highly toxic. It is dumped back into the water, that is therefore poisoned, and on to hills, killing crops and making the soil unsuitable for agriculture.
The city of Baotou in Inner Mongolia is another essential provider of rare earths, where metals extracted further north are processed. After years of hyper polluting agents released in the air, soil and water, the city of Baotou is a ghost city. Unbreathable air, diseases (such as osteoporosis, diabetes and respiratory issues), sick animals and crops that did not grow forced entire families to abandon the area. Already few years ago The Guardian reported that the population had gone from 2,000 to 300 people in ten years.
Green energy is still very green
Even taking into consideration the devastating effects of rare earths mining, renewable energy is still far greener than fossil fuels alternative.
Coal-fired, oil-fired or gas-fired power plants require continuous pollution-intensive mining to provide the combustible, while wind turbines or solar panels do not need any additional raw material to function, but only the necessary amount for the actual manufacturing.
The enormous advantages in term of reduced pollution that come with green energy cannot be made void by the pollution caused by the mining of rare earths and heavy metals needed to build green energy facilities.
This is certainly true at global level.
However, the advancing of an environmentally conscious approach to energy production cannot always overlook local scenarios, sacrificed for a greater good.
China is one of those local scenarios that should be paid attention to, together with many other countries that make part of ‘the rest’, too often suffering the drawbacks of global progress.
The next chapters of this series will examine the impact of green energy in other countries and regions of the world, not to discredit green power – that certainly allows lower emissions and a much higher degree of environment protection – but to deeply understand the implications of the energy transition.
To adopt a critical approach and understanding what the green energy transition means, everywhere.
Energy does not generate by itself, and some sort of raw material is always necessary. However, we have to understand the real effects of all systems of energy generation and to what extent we can choose the less of two evils.