In my first post on renewables I wrote about geothermal energy and the compromises we need to make in order to make geothermal energy a reality in BC. As everyone knows, geothermal isn’t the only type of renewable energy available to us and it isn’t the only one that requires some compromises.
As an environmentalist I care that we maintain the quality of our local environment but I also have another concern: ensuring fairness in environmental outcomes. We live on a finite planet which we share with other peoples and species. I find it intensely hypocritical when a NIMBY says, I want the fruits of this technology but I am uninterested in putting up with the issues associated with its production and distribution. With this in mind I would like to talk about the dirty little secret of the renewables industry: rare earth elements.
Rare earth elements or rare earth metals (usually I just call them rare earths) consist of a set of 17 chemical elements at the bottom part of the periodic table. More specifically, they consist of 15 lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium. The rare earths share a number of similar chemical properties and while they are called “rare” that is just with respect to other more common elements. In fact rare earths are fairly abundant. In Canada we have large deposits of rare earths in British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Alberta,Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador
So why are rare earths so important? Well they are the elements that have allowed us to develop all these incredible renewable energy technologies. Neodymium is the “magic” ingredient that makes high-power permanent magnets a reality. Lanthanum and cerium are what make catalytic converters work. Your cell phone, your LCD screen, your hospital’s PET scanner all depend entirely on the existence of rare earths. To be clear, we are not talking about traces of the stuff either. A single large wind turbine (rated at about 3.5 megawatts) typically contains 600 kilograms of rare earth metals. European Parliament researchers have established that major deployment of photovoltaic cells and wind turbines may have a serious impact on the future demand of 8 significant elements: gallium, indium, selenium, tellurium, dysprosium, neodymium, praseodymium and terbium (admittedly some of those are not rare earths but are mined in similar mines/geologic formations). According to a study by MIT researchers, dysprosium demand could increase by 2,600% over the next 25 years and neodymium demand could increase by as much as 700%. Both materials have exceptional magnetic properties that make them especially well-suited to use in highly efficient, lightweight motors and batteries.
So accepting that rare earths are critical to the continued development of renewable technologies, what does this have to do with compromises and environmental fairness? Well the issue with rare earths is that when they do show up in quantities/quality suitable for mining they are very hard to refine and the refining process is a very energy intensive and a very messy affair. Refineries include huge acid baths, produce sulfur gases, need tremendous temperatures and have waste streams that include radioactive isotopes and other components of environmental concern. Needless to say, we don’t have any of these industrial sized refineries in North America or Europe. The vast majority of the planet’s refining capacity for rare earths is in China with a small facility in California (Molycorp) and new capacity being developed (consistent with our desire to make others pay the environmental costs for our goods) in Malaysia.
If North American and European countries are really interested in renewable technologies then it is up to these countries to carry some of the environmental freight associated with these technologies. Asking lesser developed countries to deal with the negative consequences of the mining and refining of rare earths is the ultimate in hypocrisy. We ask for clean technologies but refuse to get our hands dirty in the process. We possess the best regulatory and technical abilities in the world but leave this environmentally risky technology to countries with lax environmental standards and little or no government oversight. The arguments I hear are that companies are not willing to invest in countries with strict regulatory requirements, but if there is one area where government support would appear necessary it is the development of rare earth capabilities. Like Swan Hills in Alberta which, while controversial, addressed a serious environmental need so do we need a rare earth refinery in North America and in a perfect world another in Europe. As for my friends in the environmental industry, once again we need a willingness to compromise. If you want wind energy, advanced photovoltaic solar, and advanced battery technologies, and don’t want to been seen as hypocrites, then get behind the drive to win the social license for rare earth mining, refining and research.