The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy systems involves enormous decreases in materials, mining, and political risk. Since renewable systems need no fuel, they depend on trade only for the acquisition of materials and components during construction. Once the system is operating, no trade is required to sustain it. Therefore renewable energy production is not exposed to the political risks that plague fossil fuel production and shipments, such as interdiction, embargo, civil war, labor actions, and other disruptions. Despite such benefits, an emerging perspective in the US public discourse makes the opposite case, arguing that a buildout of renewable electricity would exacerbate supply risks, mining intensity, and import dependence. This paper’s findings challenge such assertions. We demonstrate that installing just 1 GW of wind capacity to replace coal on a grid like that in Texas reduces total mining by 25 million tonnes over 20 years. Even if the world increased 12- fold the annual global production of all rare earths, lithium, cobalt, and even copper, the metals produced would comprise just 3% of 2020 world coal production. Over two decades, five times more power would be produced by mining an equivalent amount for wind rather than coal. Since transition materials requirements are so comparatively small, reduced international trade volumes mean a large measure of political risk falls away. Current practices for securing energy systems that require constant fuel deliveries thus offer little relevance for renewables.
Find the full article in Energy Research and Social Science or download the PDF on the left-hand sidebar.