Myths/there are no sustainable energy sources/consumption

Jump to navigation Jump to search


The "consumption" argument against sustainable generally goes something like this:

  • Even sustainable energy sources such as solar and wind power require rare-earth minerals (for solar cells, generator magnets, and storage batteries)
  • Mining of rare earth minerals is just as environmentally disastrous as mining of oil and coal, or fracking of natural gas.
  • Therefore sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar are no more sustainable than oil, coal, and natural gas.


The problems with this argument include the following:

1. The rate of usage for sustainables is orders of magnitude lower.

The rare-earth minerals used by sustainable energy sources are used to build the conversion devices – that is, the devices necessary to convert solar and wind power from their naturally-occurring forms into usable electricity. They are not consumed as part of the energy-production process. Material mined for sustainable energy generally goes to make durable goods -- motors and solar cells. (Batteries might not be classified as "durable goods", but they are typically used for many years and then recycled.)

This differs sharply from fossil fuels, where the materials mined are themselves burned to make energy – they are the fuel. Once burned, they cannot be recycled.

This leads to two key differences in how sustainables use mined materials:

  • The rate of consumption is orders of magnitude lower than for fossil fuels. [1]
    • A pound of selenium, for example, might be used in the manufacture of several kilowatts worth of generation capacity with an expected lifespan somewhere in the range of five to thirty years (and likely generating many tens of thousands of kilowatt-hours of power).
    • A pound of coal or oil is burned up for the sake of generating something on the order of a kilowatt-hour of energy.
  • When sustainable conversion equipment reaches the end of its life, the minerals it uses can be recycled. (More about this below.)

2. The need for rare minerals is overstated, at best.

  • The most common type of solar cell is made of silicon, the most common mineral on Earth.[2][3]
  • The most common types of batteries are lead-acid and lithium-ion, neither of which require any particularly rare minerals and which are also recyclable.[4][5][6]
  • Research on solar cell and rechargeable battery technology is very intense right now, including the search for cheaper materials, and new discoveries happen regularly.
    • a new sulfur-based rechargeable battery outperforms Li-ion batteries.[7] (Sulfur is even more common than lithium.)
    • many new solar cell technologies are available; some of the most efficient are still based on silicon, though others do use rare earths.[8]

3. Rare earths are recyclable.

Although supplies have so far been sufficiently plentiful that most rare earths currently do not get recycled, they are definitely recyclable; as supplies become less adequate to meet demand, recycling is therefore likely to increase. [9]

4. The argument presumes that "sustainability" requires no consumption.

This is a perfectionism straw-man argument. All that is required is for sustainables to consume at a rate lower than that at which they are replaced &ndash i.e. (in this case) more slowly than the materials can be reclaimed or recycled.


  1. Lifecycle Costs of Photovoltaics "Using data compiled from the original records of twelve PV manufacturers, we quantified the emissions from the life cycle of four major commercial photovoltaic technologies and showed that they are insignificant in comparison to the emissions that they replace when introduced in average European and U.S. grids."
  2. Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security page 150: "Materials used today include amorphous silicon, polycrystalline silicon, micro-crystalline silicon, cadmium telluride, and copper indium selenide/sulfide."
  3. How Products are Made: Solar Cell "The basic component of a solar cell is pure silicon..."
  4. Lead Battery Recycling "All the components of the modern lead acid battery are recyclable and from an Industry perspective lead-acid batteries are an environmental success story because in the United States just over 96% is recovered and in most of the G7 nations upwards of 95% is recycled."
  5. Are Lithium Ion Batteries Recyclable?: "Yes! Lithium Ion Batteries are recyclable."
  6. How to Recycle Batteries
  7. New all-solid sulfur-based battery outperforms lithium-ion technology
  8. As Solar PV Efficiency Climbs, Costs Likely To Drop: a report on recent developments in solar cell technology
  9. Rare Earth Recycling "...most of the rare earths used in applications, such as fluorescent lighting and computer hard drives, can be recovered and reused."