How mining and renewable energy go hand in hand on the road to net zero
A UNSW expert explains why mining will be vital to help renewable energy technologies flourish and to achieve greenhouse gas emission targets.
The extraction of critical minerals is crucial, say experts, to ensure the development of renewable energy technologies can keep pace with increased global demand. Photo from Getty Images
More, not less, mining will be needed in the future to help achieve the goal of net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.
That is the view of Professor Ismet Canbulat, head of the School of Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering at UNSW Sydney, based on the amount of critical minerals that need to be mined from the ground to help manufacture things like solar panels, electric vehicle batteries and magnets for wind turbines.
For example, an electric car needs around six times more critical minerals – elements such as lithium, copper, graphite, zinc, cobalt, copper, and nickel – compared to a conventional gas-powered vehicle.
And Prof. Canbulat, who was in discussion as part of UNSW’s ‘Engineering the Future’ podcast series, says failure to mine those minerals will not only delay the development of such renewable energy technologies, but also make them more expensive and therefore less likely to be widely implemented.
Professor Ismet Canbulat, Head of the School of Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering at UNSW. Image from UNSW
“As soon as you talk to public about mining, first thing that comes to their mind is coal mining. But they don't realise the fact that mining is also necessary for renewable energy technologies,” he said.
“If we can't produce those critical minerals it will be a bottleneck for the net carbon zero future. And if they become expensive, that means the energy will be very, very expensive as well.
“So we need to be able to produce them at a reasonable cost and obviously, sell them at a reasonable cost, so they can get implemented in renewable energy technologies.
“How is that sixfold increase (in the need for critical minerals) going to happen? That can only happen with increased productivity, increased resource recovery, and then increased investment into mining operations.
“And obviously, that means there will be many more mines opening up in Australia and elsewhere to be able to provide those critical minerals into the market.
“There will be a lot of challenges, particularly around increased production. Increased production means we will have to do more selective mining with much less waste and then much faster and much more productive than what we have right now.”
Joining Prof. Canbulat on the ‘Engineering the Future of Mining’ podcast episode was Rae O'Brien, executive general manager of mining excellence with Centennial Energy Company.
Rae O'Brien, executive general manager of mining excellence at Centennial Energy Company. Image supplied
She hopes that the public perception of mining is starting to change as people realise how many important minerals need to be extracted from the ground in order to meet the massive increase in demand for renewable energy technologies.
“This transition to a low carbon or a net zero carbon economy is driving a huge demand for electrification minerals,” she said.
“I accept there's not a lot of real knowledge from the general public. But if it's not grown, it's mined pretty much. Everything you use every day comes from mining in some way.
“I think people are starting to change. Even in the last six months, people have realised that we need mining for this (energy) transition. We can't do it without it.
“Rare earth (minerals) are called rare earth because they're rare! They occur in parts per million, which means you've got to move millions of tonnes of dirt just to get a kilogram of material. From an energy perspective, it's actually a really big challenge. But it can’t happen without mining.”
Prof. Canbulat accepts that mining needs to become more environmentally friendly over the next two decades, but hopes people will start to understand how important the industry is to the greener energy future.
He believes big improvements have already been made in mining practices.
“The mining industry is changing and there's been so much improvement in responsible mining operations compared to 20 years ago for example,” he said.
“What we need to change is going (more) into environmentally friendly, sustainable mining practises, and looking after the communities. That will basically bring people into believing that yes, we need mining.
“I think the public's perception towards mining is changing. And whichever way we look at, the mining industry will be required to support the renewable industries.”
* Professor Ismet Canbulat and Rae O’Brien were in conversation as part of the Engineering the Future Podcast series.