The Hard Math of Minerals
Today’s plans to decarbonize global energy systems, which center on a massive expansion in the use of solar, wind, and battery technologies, need to better account for the high environmental and economic costs of materials and minerals.
The great twentieth-century physicist Richard Feynman once said that “it is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge what energy is.” But we do know one unequivocal fact: delivering useful energy services to society has always been about materials.
Today’s plans to decarbonize global energy systems center on a massive expansion in the use of solar, wind, and battery technologies, with the goal of these becoming the dominant means to power society. But scaling up these energy sources entails a radically heavier materials footprint than is associated with fossil fuels, paradoxical though it may seem. The unavoidable scale of materials demand will have significant impacts on commodities markets and prices, as well as on the environment. Most policy formulations fail to account for these implications. The country is long overdue for thoughtful and realistic planning that honestly acknowledges the tradeoffs and consequences arising from the materials needed to accelerate what is being called the energy transition.
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Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; a partner in Cottonwood Venture Partners, an energy-tech venture fund.
This piece originally appeared in Issues in Science and Technology