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The Paradox Of Building America's Green Lifestyle Grid – Mountain Journal

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A wind farm in the West. Photo courtesy Joshua Winchell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Can we mine our way out of our climate troubles and challenges to long-term resource sustainability on a planet with growing numbers of humans and rising demand for raw material consumption? 

The most penetrating criticism I’ve seen of renewable energy—such as wind,  solar, hydropower, hydrogen and long-life battery technology— is that it’s being promoted at massive scale to reassure us that we can go on as before, with little if any change of lifestyle, no move beyond our comfort zones. That’s a comforting view, one that we’d all love to be true. And yet, it raises a big and uncomfortable question. Can we mine, baby, mine, to ensure no reduction of living standards, no uncomfortable change of lifestyle?  

Alas, the shift away from drill, baby drill for fossil fuels becomes a shift to mine, baby, mine, so that no one has to step out of their comfort zone.  Consumer demand for electric cars is a prime example. Heralded as the next wave of personal transportation, electric cars will require twice as much copper wire as today’s gasoline combustion vehicles. And building these cars will take yet a bit more mining for the cars themselves. There will be millions upon millions of them, and the mining industry sees it coming. 

There’s no doubt that we need to build and buy the machinery needed to generate renewable energy from solar and wind. The mining basic to the building is going to happen. There’s no stopping it. The need for building solar and wind capacity is too great to deny.

Where does copper wire come from? In the past, when it fueled the first electricity revolution that brought power into all our homes, it was mined in places like Butte, Montana and Bingham Canyon, Utah, pictured here. Bingham Canyon, better known as the Kennecott Copper Mine southwest of Salt Lake City, is the largest man-made excavation in the world.  Copper now figures squarely in the second energy revolution, this one involving the wiring in electric cars being advanced as replacements for gas-burning vehicles. Photo courtesy public domain and Wikimedia Commons.

Where does copper wire come from? In the past, when it fueled the first electricity revolution that brought power into all our homes, it was mined in places like Butte, Montana and Bingham Canyon, Utah, pictured here. Bingham Canyon, better known as the Kennecott Copper Mine southwest of Salt Lake City, is the largest man-made excavation in the world. Copper now figures squarely in the second energy revolution, this one involving the wiring in electric cars being advanced as replacements for gas-burning vehicles. Photo courtesy public domain and Wikimedia Commons.

But there’s no denying that much of the demand is driven by striving for a comfort zone well beyond meeting anything that deserves the name of need. Recognizing this uncomfortable reality, 50 non-governmental organizations have recently scolded the World Bank for its Climate-Smart Mining proposal—which focuses a lot on how much mining would need to increase and not at all on how we need to reduce consumption.

The shift to renewable solar and wind generation is not a matter of just keeping the lights on. Among many other things that need to be weighed, it’s a matter of how much lighting we truly need. Any 60-watt light bulb will demand less energy than a comparable 100-watt bulb. Do we really need lighting in excess of 60-watt demand? 

Building and buying of efficient bulbs will of course make a difference, but even there the wattage demand makes a difference. There will be mining in order to build these bulbs, but the wattage demand is largely in the hands of the buyers. Is reducing that demand too much to ask?

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Also read these recent columns by Lance Olsen (just click on them)

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