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Why expanding renewable energy means more mining, not less

‘Keep it in the ground’ isn’t realistic energy policy

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Bart Walker, of Strong Solutions, climbs out of a mine tunnel opening that he’s working to close above Layton on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. Strong Solutions was contracted by the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining to close the opening.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Utah is an “all-of-the-above” energy state. We believe there is room for all types of energy production and distribution. Whether it is the massive solar and wind farms in Beaver County or our coal mines in central Utah, we have a need and desire for affordable, reliable, diverse and durable energy. 

This policy has served Utahns well. We have some of the lowest energy costs in the country. Our energy sector provides good jobs with high wages. According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Utah energy sector had the second-highest paying jobs of any sector in the state in 2019, with the tech and information sector coming in higher by a very small margin. 

While the “all-of-the-above” strategy has served us well, what we’re hearing out of Washington, D.C., and the East and West Coasts are a push toward a “new moment,” what they call “keep it all in the ground.” But let’s be honest with each other — just “keeping it in the ground” isn’t really an option. 

This is a nice talking point and it may help raise money, but anyone who says that you can get power through a “keep it in the ground” policy isn’t telling you the truth. 

Why? Because energy is useless, but power is valuable. What do I mean by that? Coal is just a big black block of carbon, wind is just air rushing past and the sun is just a ball of heat. It is potential. When you set that potential in motion, then it becomes power. 

How do you turn solar energy into solar power and wind energy into wind power? Honestly, through critical minerals. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, there are 35 mineral commodities that are used in the creation of solar panels. These minerals “transform the sun’s energy into electricity.” Both aluminum and rare-earth elements help turn wind into wind power in the development of wind turbines. Batteries and battery storage are key to the long-term success of renewable energy because they allow the power generated by wind and solar to be stored. This transformative technology relies on cobalt, graphite, lithium and manganese. 

Advocating for renewable energy sources also means maintaining, if not expanding, our mining infrastructure.

What does this mean? It means we can’t just “keep it in the ground.” All power, whether traditional or renewable, is impacted by what comes out of the ground. Advocating for renewable energy sources also means maintaining, if not expanding, our mining infrastructure.

Wind turbines and battery storage are just two of many examples; critical minerals and petroleum are used in many of our everyday items, including the clothes you are wearing and the device that you are reading this op-ed on now. 

The simple truth is that “all-of-the-above” is a strong and important policy, and it would be wise for the federal government to follow Utah’s lead. 

Thom Carter is the energy adviser to Gov. Spencer Cox. He is the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Energy Development.