A future of environment-friendly energy, where dirty engines and power plants rust in history’s scrapyard, is an idyllic vision. In the cynical real world, the rush for “green batteries” is fueling a harmful mining boom.
All those ‘future’ cars will need batteries, and all those batteries will need to be built with a small periodic table of minerals. And all those minerals need to be mined – in some cases strip-mining the rest of the planet’s explored deposits.
The rush is already on. The world’s top mining corporations are starting to carve up the growing market for lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper, platinum, vanadium and palladium – all key materials in making electric vehicle (EV) batteries.
It’s estimated that 3 million more tons of copper will have to be mined per year to feed the production of 140 million EV’s by 2030 – and that’s copper, the most recycled metal on Earth. Nickel mining will have to increase by 1.3 million tons per year, and cobalt by 263,000 tons.
Those are just batteries. Electric cars also need engines, and solar and wind generators – without which a green future is unimaginable – will also gobble up those materials, including more obscure ones like tellurium and neodymium.
Demand is set to exceed supply – which is why those mining giants are rushing to increase their lucrative income. In some cases, demand will exceed the supply offered by the planet – at least the feasibly-minable reserves we have discovered so far.
Lithium, the mineral central to building modern batteries, is extracted from salt via giant evaporation ponds. The process is cost-effective, but uses up enormous amounts of water.
In parts of South America’s ‘lithium triangle’, farmers have to bring water in from elsewhere, while the local ground waters are being pumped up to the surface and left to evaporate and leave behind lithium-rich salt.
Copper mines have caused devastating wastewater spills, like the one that turned Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers in Mexico a rusty orange in August 2014, causing serious health problems in hundreds of locals.
Artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where most minerals comes from, kicks up clouds of toxic mineral dust, whose effects are exacerbated with a lack of regulation, combined with reported human rights abuses –including child labor– at the mines.
One big problem with going renewable all the way is that humans have not yet discovered a way to make any energy technology 100% renewable.
Batteries we can currently make have a lifespan – a modern lithium battery, drained and recharged over and over, only maintains enough capacity to run an electric car for about 10 years.
Common standards for batteries would need to be worked out. Recycling would need to be stepped up dramatically – currently only about 5% of all Li-ion batteries are being recycled in the USA and Europe.
Even so, it is technically impossible to recycle 100% of the lithium used in a battery. And while environmentalists and energy researchers wrestle with this conundrum, mining corporations are defaulting to what they do best: more digging?
It is possible to make mineral extraction green, to an extent, with wastewater recycling, gas capturing, soil reclamation, bio-mining.
The bottom line is, while switching to an electric car sounds like an obvious step to going green, their hidden costs mean they are not as clean as advertised.
It is noteworthy that when automobiles first arrived, they were marketed as ‘clean’ because there would be no more horse manure to deal from horse carriages. The same is likely to happen with renewable energy and EV’s.
RT. com / ABC Flash Point Environment News 2019.