The Dirty Side of Clean Energy Technologies: A Call to Action
Deep in Inner Mongolia China is a lake. Remote enough to be invisible to the world’s consciousness, this lake is large enough to be visible from space. Unlike the pristine blue lakes elsewhere in the country, the lake is made of black sludge. It is the dumping ground of toxic, radioactive waste from the surrounding rare earth mineral refineries of the city of Baotou. Air pollution, cancer villages, unsafe drinking water, poor working conditions, and loss of a pastoral culture are just a few in the long list of inflictions suffered by this industrial city.
Baotou is the world’s biggest supplier of rare earth minerals. China is responsible for roughly 85 percent of global rare earth production. Rare earth minerals are a group of 17 metallic elements that, because of their unique properties, are used in an array of modern day technologies. Some are considered rare because of their known geologic supply whereas others are difficult to mine due to economic, political, or environmental barriers. Tellurium, for instance, is used in thin film photovoltaic cells to enhance conductivity and is eight times rarer than gold. Cerium and europium, some other examples, are important minerals used in LED technology, prized for its energy efficiency benefits in the lighting industry.
We all know that clean energy and energy efficiency are essential to the future of our planet. But if we are to shift to a world powered by 100 percent clean energy, we need to consider how clean energy technologies are made, where they go when we are done with them, and what environmental and social impacts they have along the way. The Baotou story is not meant to be Malthusian, doomsday warning of environmental degradation, supply shortages, technological failures and human suffering. Rather, the story of Baotou should serve as a reality check—that even our clean technologies have dirty tradeoffs and that we can, and must, take action to grow the global clean energy sector in a more sustainable and just way.
To drive cleaner manufacturing of modern energy technologies we must start at the beginning—design. Entrepreneurs and manufacturers can design new products that use less rare earth minerals or avoid them altogether. Tesla is one notable example of a company that has done just that. Tesla does not use any rare earth minerals in its batteries or motors (although it does use rare earths in other technologies). Tesla has also pledged to supply minerals and metals needed for its technologies entirely from North America. The moves to both limit rare earths and strategically source them ensure both increased supply chain control as well as increased environmental and social regulation of the mining process.
Manufacturers should also “design for recovery” to make it easier to recover critical materials at the end of a product’s useful life. In 2009, it was estimated that not even one percent of rare earth metals were recovered. Recovery of rare earths can be complicated and expensive, but there are examples of companies leading in this field. Umicore, for instance, is a Belgian materials technology and recycling company that is at the forefront of recycling for critical metals. Just this past September, the Solar Energy Industries Association, in collaboration with major solar companies like First Solar, SunPower and SolarCity, launched a first-of-its-kind national PV recycling program. Companies should engage with recycling partners, like Umicore, in the product design phase to ensure that rare earths can be recovered through the recycling process at the end of the product’s useful life. To increase recycling and critical metal recovery rates, the clean tech industry can employ lessons learned from the automobile industry, an industry with robust systems for recycling batteries and other components.
Furthermore, the clean tech industry should explore ways to more efficiently extract these critical materials from the earth during mining. One recent innovation from the U.S. Department of Energy uses supercomputers to increase the capture rate of minerals during the mining process from 65 percent to 75 percent.
How can the industry fund these efforts? There is a lot of talk currently about innovation in the clean tech industry. At COP 21 in Paris global leaders launched “Mission Innovation,” an initiative to accelerate clean energy innovation by increasing investment in research and development. A portion of this innovation funding should be routed to explore ways to reduce the impact of rare earths mining on our planet. Funding can be used to scale innovations already uncovered by groups such as the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), which researches ways to eliminate and reduce reliance on rare earth minerals critical to the success of clean energy technologies.
As the Baotou black sludge lake grows, the clean energy industry must take some responsibility. By reducing rare earth mineral use, strategically sourcing the minerals, increasing recycling and recovery rates, and investing in research and development, the clean energy industry can do what its technologies are intended to do---more good for people and our planet.
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