The modern world was built with incredible technological leaps over the last 150 years, but we only accomplished this by burning fossil fuels without limit. We abused fossil fuels like a drug that boosts productivity, and now we are finally feeling the side effects in the form of climate change. In response, we are now striving to replace our fossil fuel systems with renewable energy and battery-powered electric vehicles. I am concerned that we are simply quitting one drug to abuse another, with side effects of its own.
Nature spent millions of years packing huge amounts of energy into fossil fuels. To get the same amount of energy using wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries, we’ll need to do a lot more mining to get the necessary raw materials. This is even more concerning given that global energy demand is expected to increase by about 50% between 2020 and 2050. Clearly, we need to consider the environmental and social side effects of mining as we plan our clean energy future.
The raw materials we need for clean energy are particularly abundant in developing southern nations. Large corporations from wealthy countries (including Canada) are known to make deals with developing nations to mine their lands with little oversight. This often results in habitats being destroyed, water sources being polluted or depleted, and local people being taken advantage of, put in harm’s way, or even forced to work without pay (slavery). This is the sad reality behind much of the technology we enjoy in the modern world.
For me, a “clean” energy transition does not involve manufacturing more stuff without limit, and certainly not at the expense of vulnerable peoples and ecosystems. The modern world does need technologies like wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries, but it also needs to manage its consumption, minimize its waste, commit to responsible mining practices, and support developing nations instead of exploiting them.
My PhD research will help reduce waste in the clean energy transition. To make wind farms and solar farms reliable, we need to upgrade the electricity grid with vast amounts of batteries, and there will soon be millions of used batteries being discarded from retired electric vehicles. Instead of building new batteries for the electricity grid while electric vehicle batteries go to waste, we can reuse electric vehicle batteries on the electricity grid. I am developing new technology to help make this a reality, and I look forward to sharing more about my work in future posts.