The Real Costs of Green Energy is an investigation into how the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy is, while unquestionably necessary, also causing serious damage to people and the planet—and what we can do about it.
With climate change hitting harder every year, businesses, governments, and individuals are increasingly embracing electric vehicles and wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources. While that’s great for the atmosphere, it’s hell on the Earth. “Green” power has an Achilles heel: It requires staggering amounts of natural resources. Manufacturing solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars involves a kaleidoscopic array of materials, from copper and tin to exotic elements like neodymium. To meet the surging demand for all that “green” hardware, we’ll need to mine an additional 10 million tons of copper every year. We’ll need to dig up 20 times more cobalt and lithium than we do today. Gouging out those metals is creating its own set of human and environmental catastrophes, from children risking their lives in Congolese cobalt quarries to toxin-spewing rare earth mines in China.
How can we find more humane and sustainable ways of obtaining these metals? A planet-spanning panoply of researchers, entrepreneurs, activists, and corporations are working on possible answers—from high-tech billionaires to slum-dwelling trash-pickers, from the bottom of the ocean to outer space. I aim to take a hard look at the costs we’re already incurring in our rush for “green” energy metals, and how we might be able to do it better.