Democrats dream of powering society entirely with wind and solar farms comb ined with massive batteries. Realizing this dream would require the biggest expansion in mining the world has seen and would produce huge quantities o f waste.
“Renewable energy” is a misnomer. Wind and solar machines a nd batteries are built from nonrenewable materials. And they wear out. Old equipment must be decommissioned, generating millions of tons of waste. The International Renewable Energy Agency calculates that solar goals for 2050 consistent with the Paris Accords will result in old-panel disposal consti tuting more than double the tonnage of all today’s global plastic w aste. Consider some other sobering numbers:
A single electric-car battery weighs about 1,000 pounds. Fabricating one re quires digging up, moving and processing more than 500,000 pounds of raw ma terials somewhere on the planet. The alternative? Use gasoline and extract one-tenth as much total tonnage to deliver the same number of vehicle-miles over the battery’s seven-year life.
When electricity comes from wind or solar machines, every unit of energy pr oduced, or mile traveled, requires far more materials and land than fossil fuels. That physical reality is literally visible: A wind or solar farm str etching to the horizon can be replaced by a handful of gas-fired turbines, each no bigger than a tractor-trailer.
Building one wind turbine requires 900 tons of steel, 2,500 tons of concret e and 45 tons of nonrecyclable plastic. Solar power requires even more ceme nt, steel and glass—not to mention other metals. Global silver and indium mining will jump 250% and 1,200% respectively over the next couple o f decades to provide the materials necessary to build the number of solar p anels, the International Energy Agency forecasts. World demand for rare-ear th elements—which aren’t rare but are rarely mined in Ameri ca—will rise 300% to 1,000% by 2050 to meet the Paris green goals. If electric vehicles replace conventional cars, demand for cobalt and lithi um, will rise more than 20-fold. That doesn’t count batteries to ba ck up wind and solar grids.
Last year a Dutch government-sponsored study concluded that the Netherlands ’ green ambitions alone would consume a major share of global miner als. “Exponential growth in [global] renewable energy production ca pacity is not possible with present-day technologies and annual metal produ ction,” it concluded.
The demand for minerals likely won’t be met by mines in Europe or t he U.S. Instead, much of the mining will take place in nations with oppress ive labor practices. The Democratic Republic of the Congo produces 70% of t he world’s raw cobalt, and China controls 90% of cobalt refining. T he Sydney-based Institute for a Sustainable Future cautions that a global “gold” rush for minerals could take miners into “so me remote wilderness areas [that] have maintained high biodiversity because they haven’t yet been disturbed.”
What’s more, mining and fabrication require the consumption of hydr ocarbons. Building enough wind turbines to supply half the world’s electricity would require nearly two billion tons of coal to produce the co ncrete and steel, along with two billion barrels of oil to make the composi te blades. More than 90% of the world’s solar panels are built in A sia on coal-heavy electric grids.
Engineers joke about discovering “unobtanium,” a magical en ergy-producing element that appears out of nowhere, requires no land, weigh s nothing, and emits nothing. Absent the realization of that impossible dre am, hydrocarbons remain a far better alternative than today’s green dreams.
Mr. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a partner in Co ttonwood Venture Partners, an energy-tech venture fund, and author of the r ecent report, “The ‘New Energy Economy’: An Exercis e in Magical Thinking.”