Think renewables will never replace fossil fuels? A future where electricity comes mostly from clean energy sources is not only feasible in terms of material demand, but will also significantly reduce air pollution, finds a study led by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Researchers conducted the first global comprehensive lifecycle assessment of the long-term, wide-scale implementation of electricity generation from renewable resources. The study looked at concentrating solar power, photovoltaics, wind power, hydropower, and gas- and coal-fired power plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS).
An oft-cited concern with renewable technologies is that they can require more raw materials per unit of power generation than conventional fossil fuel plants. For example, photovoltaic systems need 11-40 times more copper than fossil fuel production, while wind power plants need 6-14 times more iron than fossil fuel production. Researchers wanted to investigate whether shifting energy production to renewables would increase or decrease other types of manufacturing pollution.
The researchers concluded these material demands are “manageable but not negligible.” For example, the amount of copper needed to build out photovoltaic systems by 2050 represents just two years of current copper production. The demand for iron and steel would increase by a mere 10%, while the demand for aluminum will decrease.