It's Time to Prepare for CleanTech's Rare Earth Problem

rare earth mineNASA/Public Domain

This isn't exactly a new issue to the green movement, but it's an under-examined one nonetheless: Rare earths like neodymium are integral to a number of cleantech innovations that are changing the way that we produce energy, drive, and so on. But they're also, well, rare.

This Mother Jones report does a good job of giving an overview of how their scarcity presents a number of problems to revving the clean energy economy up to full speed. Read the whole thing, but here are the bullet points:

-First, as of now, China produces almost all of the world's rare earth metals. But as its own domestic industry has boomed, it has kept more and more to itself, and costs have spiked as a result.
-Second, mining for rare earths is tricky, and dangerous. It has been known to create dreadful contamination -- rare earths, as MoJo reports,"occur naturally with the radioactive elements thorium and uranium, which, if not stored securely, can leach into groundwater or escape into the air as dust."
-Finally, improper mining procedures have led to birth defects and health woes in nearby communities.

Which brings us to the crux of the problem: If we're hoping to exponentially ramp up production of solar panels and wind turbines and Priuses, we're going to need much more of this stuff. (Rare earths are in a ton of non-cleantech products too, like TVs, computers, etc) Which means more mining. Which means we'd better keep an eye on our regulatory framework for these operations, and make sure companies aren't outsourcing them to places where they can get away with not providing adequate safety measures. It's also a stark reminder that scaling up a green economy is going to require some ungreen undertakings, and that we who advocate for more cleaner technologies need to prepared to address such issues transparently and honestly.

It's Time to Prepare for CleanTech's Rare Earth Problem
The growing shortage of rare earth minerals underscores how truly difficult the transition to a clean energy economy will be.

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