It isn’t something often mentioned, but it still threatens to tear the “green” label off of most available renewable energy sources. The reality of 99% of “green energy,” from solar panels to wind turbines, is that it requires rare earth elements. Although progress is being made at phasing out certain rare earth metals from conventional green energy processes, success has been limited and these elements (lanthanides) remain necessary in the production of everything from thin solar panels and wind turbines to electric cars and smartphones.
We are not only dependent on energy and oil, but also to over a dozen of elements that most of us cannot name. We are tied up in processes requiring rare and environmentally costly elements. Thin, cheap solar panels need tellurium, which is only 0.0000001 percent of the earth’s crust, and Neodymium magnets are an integral part of creating wind turbines that don’t break quickly or easily.
The solution, of course, is to move away from generating energy through systems that require such complex logistics and production. At the same time, we have to move away from lithium and other metal based batteries which require special disposal. Fortunately, these are not just abstract wishes, but problems we have already at least begun to solve.
We already have quinine based organic batteries that are 97% percent cheaper than their metal cousins. We have developed “plant microbial fuel cells,” which use bacteria to turn the sugar that plants put into the soil into electrical energy. We already have the stepping-stones we can use to produce and store actual sustainable energy.
If governments can manage to put humans onto the moon, can we not manage to develop and apply truly sustainable energy projects? Does it really make sense to continue ecologically destructive practices in the face of losing 52% of wild animals in 40 years?
Both public and private sectors need to get behind these and analogous technologies, and it would be a hero’s move for those companies to then release their patents for others to build on. With long-term human survival depending on us living sustainably on our planet: why should we pretend unsustainable technologies are completely renewable while ignoring real potential?