When we talk about transitioning our energy economy away from fossil fuels, renewable energies have many benefits worth highlighting. However, in calling for this shift, we must also address their drawbacks. One significant challenge is the role of rare earth elements, which are used in the construction of many clean energy technologies.
While advocates try to keep oil and gas in the ground, renewable energy technologies need critical minerals to come out.
While advocates try to keep oil and gas in the ground, renewable energy technologies need critical minerals to come out. The term rare earth elements (or critical minerals) refers to a list of about 15 elements that are necessary inputs for many newer technologies like cell phones, rechargeable batteries, electric vehicles, and solar panels. Despite the name, they aren’t all that rare. It’s just difficult to find concentrations of them large enough to mine.
The International Energy Agency found that since 2010, “the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation capacity has increased by 50%.” As our society embraces renewable energy, American industry will have a greater demand for these minerals.
Knowing that we will need a whole lot more of these minerals as renewable energy generation becomes the norm raises a key question: where and how will we source them?
In the United States, most mines are in the Appalachian region and the West. However, these mines supply very little of the United States’ mineral usage. Nearly all—75-100%—of rare earth elements need to be imported. As of 2020 China is the largest miner of rare earth minerals.
Right now, the United States relies on China to mine and refine the rare earth elements used in domestic solar panel production and other equipment manufacturing. The Department of Labor reports Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, China produce polysilicon, a rare earth element necessary for producing solar panels, under forced labor conditions. These human rights abuses affect our nation’s economic relationship with China.
As we continue to lobby Congress for green energy incentives, an important part of our work as advocates will be to educate lawmakers about these costs so they can be clearly addressed.
That’s not to say that mining here in the United States, or anywhere else, is free of moral considerations. Mining, just like the fossil fuel industry, was built on the backs of Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color in America. Mining in the United States is still governed by the General Mining Law of 1872. This law allows the federal government to claim public land for mining, regardless of how the land is currently being used. This has serious potential consequences for tribal lands. The law doesn’t even require any environmental assurances to be set or have any royalties to be paid to taxpayers.
Knowing that our transition to renewable energy has the potential to exploit vulnerable communities, it’s essential to address this issue. This year the U.S. Department of the Interior launched an interagency working group to review and reform current mining laws and regulations. This a good start, but more work will need to be done to ensure that our transition to clean energy sources doesn’t harm the environment or the health of our communities. There is an important role for rulemaking and regulation to this end. As we continue to lobby Congress for green energy incentives, part of our work as advocates will be to educate lawmakers about these costs so they can be clearly addressed.