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EcosystemsThe Squeeze on Powering the Open Road

The Squeeze on Powering the Open Road

The Squeeze on Powering the Open Road

Pearl Gray
|March 24, 2023

Wind turbines under construction within the Biglow Canyon Wind Farm in 2009. Photo: Tedder/Wikimedia Commons

Recurrently within the news, grocery stores, and on the pump, we’re experiencing the bounds of our planetary supply.

President Biden has called for 500,000 latest electric vehicle charging stations to be installed across the country to take care of the person’s freedom behind the wheel while reducing combustion emissions. This expansion is at the side of a call to convert electricity generation to renewables, as well as latest requirements for batteries, wires, and other supporting materials to be manufactured within the US. On top of this, we’ll also need to greater than double the speed of expansion of transmission lines so as to move electricity from distant wind and solar farms to the population centers that may use it.

Meeting these goals — noble as they’re — will challenge us to make use of limited, difficult-to-attain natural resources, reminiscent of copper. We are going to proceed to feel a growing squeeze as demand increases on these natural resources. In reality, we don’t even know if the planetary supply can meet such an unlimited demand.

Copper is an exceptional mover (conductor) of electrons. Electrons, nevertheless they’re harvested, are moved across space to the top user via copper or copper alloy wires and transmission lines. Although seemingly available, copper may make up only about 0.0006% of the Earth’s crust. There isn’t a approach to have a clear inventory of how much copper is on the market. What we do know is that demand for copper has increased dramatically over the previous few many years. And, like many other elements humans eat, the worth of copper goes up with the rise in demand, the problem of extracting, and the fee of moving it.

After I’m baking a sourdough loaf, I do know that I would like five cups of flour and one cup of starter. Without enough, I put the baking off to a different day and source more ingredients. In this instance, it is simple to understand how much flour I would like and the way much is on the market, and thereby plan how much and when to make the bread. The identical information is just not so available for the metals and ores we’d like so as to construct out the grid and other needed technologies; we don’t understand how much we are able to construct because we don’t understand how much is on the market. This lack of awareness makes me worry that the green energy transition plan could also be only half-baked.

My concerns are corroborated by environmental analyst Lester Brown, who thinks we should always restructure taxes to get the market to inform the environmental truth, and Ira Joralemon, a geologist and copper mining expert of the early twentieth century, who wrote in 1924:

“… the age of electricity and of copper will likely be short. At the extraordinary rate of production that must come, the copper supply of the world will last hardly a rating of years. … Our civilization based on electrical power will dwindle and die.”

Twenty years have come and gone, but Joralemon’s criticism of the concept growth and demand may be continuous while planetary supply stays constant resonates deep understanding and honor of the planetary restoration process and limitations. Materials like copper, lithium, and iron ore, with restoration cycles longer than the span of human existence, will eventually be permanently exhausted; allow us to query constructing a society on that exhaustible foundation fairly than a regenerative one.

Deep sea deposits of minerals, including copper, are lauded as a savior and a stop gap to the increasing demand. It is crucial to know that human knowledge of space is more comprehensive than that of our home planet’s oceans. Only 50 years ago, scientists thought the midnight (bathypelagic) zone of the ocean was void of life — boy were they fallacious. The non-photosynthetic life there was huge and prolific, but difficult to review. Even with robotic excavators, it is a dangerous, isolated, unpredictable, and abrasive environment to work in.

The environmental effects of deep sea mining likely wouldn’t be pretty, either. After extraction or dredging, a slurry of deep sea flotsam and jetsam can be left to linger in the daylight (epipelagic) zone of the ocean, together with the plastic and the megafauna we love. On land, we see the implications of comparable sorts of extraction in the shape of dead zones where plants don’t grow, and polluted water that’s undrinkable nor swimmable and makes people, plants, and animals sick. We are able to only imagine, and hopefully won’t discover, the implications of such abuse on our global climate regulator — the oceans. Already our planet’s seas are scuffling with rising temperatures, shifting currents, and increasing acidity. The implications and costs of deep sea mining accidents might be irreversible, each as a result of the remoteness of the mining sites and the fragile nature wherein they’re situated.

The proposed US goal to double electricity transmission lines and construct a separate electric vehicle charging network while also expanding solar and wind production to maneuver to 100% renewable generation is, perhaps, not the panacea without consequence that we’d wish to imagine. We’d like to set realistic expectations, increase recycling, reduce redundancy, and benefit from the limited resources we have now available. And eventually, we might have to seek out more regenerative ways to sustain our civilizations.

Pearl Gray is assistant program director of Climate Motion on the Columbia Climate School.


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