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Roger Arnold's picture
Director Silverthorn Institute

Roger Arnold is a former software engineer and systems architect. He studied physics, math, and chemistry at Michigan State University's Honors College. After graduation, he worked in...

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  • Sep 7, 2020
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This story in The Guardian popped up on my news feed a couple of days ago. It's about a study that was just published in the journal Nature Communications. The study's title there was somewhat less equivocal. Instead of 'could harm biodiversity', it stated flatly that renewable energy production 'will exacerbate' mining threats to biodiversity. Technically, maybe that's still equivocal; 'exacerbate threats' is short of 'will damage'. It holds open the possibility that the threats can be mitigated. But the whole article, shall we say, "gave me pause".

I've never been happy about the heavy footprint that big wind and solar farms impose upon the landscape. And I've long know that the steel and concrete for wind turbines is a factor of ten or more larger, per megawatt-hour delivered, than it is for conventional pressurized water nuclear plants, with their heavy steel and concrete containment vessels. And I knew that quite a lot of mining activity was involved with the materials required to build solar cells, advanced batteries, and permanent magnets for wind turbine generators. But I've never been forced to look closely at just how extensive that activity is, and what it says about the sustainability of the whole renewable energy enterprise.

I'm still digesting the Nature Communications study. I'm not prepared to pass judgement on it, one way or the other. But I think it's something we'd all do well to at least think about. Renewables, and even more so, renewables with battery storage, have large environmental impacts. We need to be aware of those impacts and think about how we can mitigate them, if that's the way we're determined to go.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 8, 2020

Definitely an area that should be studied with care and deliberation-- especially where it highlights potential impacts to indigenous communities. Like you, I'm curious to see more investigations into this before passing broad judgment, but everyone should be open to these questions being asked and studied

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