President Joe Biden’s climate agenda requires significant investments in clean energy technology — with everything from expansive offshore wind farms, massive solar arrays and a doubling down in the electric vehicle arena.
But clean energy comes with a dirty cost.
Utah has a robust number of solar farms, a wind corridor in Beaver County, as well as geothermal resources. It also boasts mining deposits of copper and uranium, and is the largest supplier of beryllium ore from the Spor Mountain area.
Rio Tinto plans to begin extracting tellurium from its Bingham Canyon mine in Salt Lake County as part of its copper smelting process later this year.
All this bodes well for the state, but it is not without controversy.
The Deseret News has peeled back the layers of what it means to have a zero emissions economy — Biden’s goal by no later than 2050 — and what important policy ramifications have to be taken into account, as well as why it is critical the United States pursue this green agenda in an environmentally sustainable way.
Here are five key takeaways gleaned from the Deseret News reporting on clean energy technology during the past few months.
What happens when a solar battery dies?
When wind turbines, photovoltaic solar arrays and electric vehicle batteries reach the end of their life cycle, companies and land managers need to have proper recycling policies in place to ensure their disposal is managed in a way to protect the environment. While there has been progress in some aspects — some states have rules in place — there is a lack of a coherent national strategy.
Clean energy needs minerals
Clean energy technology is heavily dependent on minerals, and that means the U.S. has to position itself to make sure it has a safe, reliable supply.
The demand will be tremendous over the next couple of decades. A World Bank report estimates that by 2050 demand for cobalt will increase by 585% and lithium demand will increase by 965%. That demand is complicated by which countries control supply and which countries control the subsequent processing of the minerals and elements.
And it is not the United States.
When it comes to cobalt, lithium and rare earth elements, the world’s top three producers control over three-quarters of the global output. China dominates the market globally for rare earth elements and for mineral processing, and according to the International Energy Administration, it has banned exports of rare earth elements.
Like most things, politicians can’t agree
The pursuit of more clean energy deployment has become a hot topic politically, with some GOP detractors accusing the Biden administration of picking winners and losers when it comes to federal subsidies. Politicians like Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who says he is all in favor of cutting emissions — but critics of the Biden administration say it needs to wake up on what it will take to ensure a safe, domestic supply.
In April, Stewart introduced the “Ensuring Access to Domestic Mineral Production Act,” which would prohibit the Interior secretary from withdrawal of any lands until a study has been completed that demonstrates U.S. national security would not be jeopardized.
Big Tech has big problems
Big Tech companies like Google, Tesla and Apple have come under political pressure, plus litigation, over the gadgets they produce that rely on rechargeable batteries.
Those batteries in most instances are manufactured with cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which accounts for 60% of the world’s supply. The problem is the country is rife with corruption and uses thousands of children to mine the critical element under harsh conditions that include tunnel collapses that has killed or maimed hundreds of these young workers.
More clean energy technology means more mining
The demand for the minerals necessary for clean energy technology means more mining will have to happen. But the regulatory hurdles and environmental concerns that have to be overcome for these projects are immense and not without fierce critics who are putting pressure on Biden to stop new mining efforts.
Potential cobalt deposits in Utah once within the boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument have stoked opposition and Biden pushed pause on an expansive copper mine planned in Arizona. A proposed lithium ore mine in northern Nevada at Thacker Pass has united both ranchers and environmentalists as critics who fear it will forever change a landscape they cherish and depend on.
All these lessons about the clean energy revolution do not mean more wind farms, solar farms and electric vehicles should not be pursued. They do mean the transition to clean energy is, on its face, more complicated than one might realize, and U.S. policies need to be thoughtful and ensure that clean energy materials are obtained in way that both protects the nation’s interests and the environment.
Utah’s director of the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining — John Baza — says he does not believe it has to be a zero sum game. Green energy materials, he emphasized, can be obtained without jeopardizing the environment if the proper safeguards are put in place.
You don’t develop one at the expense of the other,” he said.