Demand for renewable energy leads to…more coal mining?

Dwayne Yancey - September 16, 2022
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Demand for renewable energy leads to…more coal mining?
The miners' statue in Grundy. Photo by Lakin Keene.

Whether it’s wind or solar, renewable energy requires steel, and to make steel (at least for now) you need coal. Here’s a look at the complicated chemistry.

If we want renewable energy, we need to mine more coal.

That seems counterintuitive, but chemistry is complicated.

Last month, an Australia-based company, Coronado Global Resources, announced it will invest $169 million to expand its coal operations in Buchanan and Tazewell counties – adding 181 jobs to the 585 already there.

Isn’t coal on the decline? As a percentage of electricity generation, it certainly is. Once the primary source of electrical power, coal has now fallen to a distant second place behind natural gas. In 2007, coal accounted for 48.5% of electrical generation in the U.S., according to the Energy Information Administration. By 2021, it was 22%, just barely ahead of renewables at 20%. Natural gas was up to 38%.

That, however, is what’s known as thermal coal, or steam coal. What Coronado is mining – and wants to mine more of – is metallurgical coal, or “met” coal, which is used in producing steel.

I’ll spare you the chemistry lesson on the differences between the two. Generally speaking, met coal has less ash, moisture and sulfur – but more carbon – than thermal coal. More to the point, met coal, when burned, produces coke, the fuel for blast furnaces that turn iron ore into steel. About 70% of steel is made with met coal; the other 30% is made using electric arc furnaces working with scrap steel rather than iron ore.

Put another way, if you want to make steel from scratch, you need coke, which means you need coal – met coal.

Now consider this: Much of the technology for renewable energy requires steel. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says 66% to 79% of a wind turbine is made of steel, with fiberglass, resin or plastic accounting for 16%, iron accounting for somewhere between 5% and 17%, and copper about 1%.

Measured another way, the American Wind Energy Association says a single wind turbine requires 200 to 230 tons of steel.

Measured yet another way, each new megawatt of wind energy is said to require 120 to 180 tons of steel – and each new megawatt of solar energy needs 35 to 45 tons of steel. Those estimates come from a Luxembourg-based steel company, so feel free to dispute the actual numbers, but the point is that wind farms and solar farms require some amount of steel. That means if we want renewable energy, we need to make steel, which means we need to mine met coal.

Like I said, chemistry is complicated.

Mind you, I’m not making a case here against renewable energy – if we can produce energy more or less out of thin air, that seems good for both the environment and national security. I am, though, pointing out some of the aspects of the renewable energy supply chain that often go unrecognized.

It’s not just renewable energy, either. The infrastructure bill that Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed late last year includes $110 billion for roads and bridges, $66 billion for rail, $55 billion for water infrastructure, $25 billion for airports – and lots of other billions for lots of other things. All those things also require steel, which means they ultimately require met coal.

Indeed, two things right now driving the met coal market: increased spending on infrastructure, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has cut off global demand for Russian coal.

The politics here are ironic. Donald Trump promised to “bring back coal” but coal production in the United States declined each year he was in office – from 774,609 tons in 2017 to 535,650 tons in 2020, the lowest figure in 50 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, coal production increased in Biden’s first year in office – to 577,650 tons. Biden didn’t really have anything to do with that 2021 increase – one reason that American coal production was up in 2021 was that coal exports were up, to coal-burning countries such as India and China. Both those countries are investing heavily in renewables, but they’re also burning more coal. So yes, it’s complicated: China is both the world’s largest consumer of coal and its biggest producer of solar energy.

But back to us: Two major policies that Biden has pushed – the infrastructure bill and the acceleration of renewable energy – will almost certainly drive up coal production in future years because we’ll need met coal to make the steel for all those bridges and all those wind turbines and all those solar panels, especially if more production of the latter is “re-shored.” So yes, two Democratic policies will now lead to more jobs in one of the most Republican-voting parts of the country. Buchanan County and Tazewell County cast only 15.9% of their votes in 2020 for Biden. Will voters there reward Biden or any other Democrat in 2024? I doubt it.

I say this not to advocate for Biden but once again to point out how the effects of some policies are more complicated than most bumper sticker slogans allow. Many green energy advocates pushing renewables are going to be discomfited when they find that actually leads to more mining. Many Republicans who oppose Democratic policies are going to find their communities are actually gaining jobs as a result.

It’s not just coal, either. I pointed out in an earlier column how the so-called climate bill creates generous incentives to accelerate adoption of electric vehicles. Those electric vehicles require batteries, and those batteries depend on five critical minerals: lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite. The demand for each of those minerals has been surging anyway as the electric vehicle market booms. Kitco News, which covers the precious minerals market, says that the supply of “high-purity manganese has to increase 10-fold by 2030.” Standard and Poors says the demand for graphite will more than triple by 2030. The demand for nickel is projected to double every year.

Other aspects of the energy transition require different minerals. “Electric vehicles, solar and wind power, and batteries for energy storage all run on copper,” CNBC reports. “An EV requires 2.5 times as much copper as an internal combustion engine vehicle, according to S&P Global. Meanwhile, solar and offshore wind need two times and five times, respectively, more copper per megawatt of installed capacity than power generated using natural gas or coal.”

The network quotes S&P’s vice chairman: “The energy transition is going to be dependent much more on copper than our current energy system … Copper is the metal of electrification, and electrification is much of what the energy transition is all about.”

The company projects that demand for copper will nearly double by 2035. Where will that copper come from? Chile is currently the world’s biggest supplier of copper, with a market share of 28.5%, followed by Peru at 11%, China at 8.5% and the Democratic Republic of Congo at 6.5%. The United States comes in fifth at 6%. Will we see more copper mining in the U.S.? A Canadian company is currently exploring for copper and zinc in Pittsylvania County (zinc is also used in electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines). The prospect of metals mining in Southside quickly generated opposition from environmental groups. Mining for these minerals in Pittsylvania may or may not be a good thing but if we want an energy transition, it seems clear we’ll have to have more copper mining and zinc mining somewhere. As Al Gore himself might say, this is an inconvenient truth.

It’s also possible that science will change all these assumptions, just as it’s changed so many others. Researchers at Virginia Tech – among other places – are studying how to extract minerals from everything from piles of waste coal to wastewater. (Randy Walker explored this in his recent story, “Tech scientists see rare opportunity in Appalachia.“) A Swedish company is experimenting with building wind turbines out of old-fashioned wood rather than steel. And in 2021 a different Swedish company announced that it had figured out how to make steel without using coal, and plans to fire up commercial production of this “green steel” in 2026. Yet another Swedish company says it hopes to have a carbon-free steel plant running by 2024. (Sweden seems to be where things are happening, although other companies in other countries are working on the same thing.) In Massachusetts, a startup called Boston Metal is using a technique called molten oxide electrolysis to make steel without coke or coal. Are these just novelties or harbingers of some fundamental shift? Who knows?

All we know for now is that if we want new bridges and new forms of energy, we’re going to need steel, and that means more mining for coal (and lots of other minerals). It also means that some of the voters most opposed to the so-called Green New Deal will also be the biggest beneficiaries. Chemistry is complicated and so is politics.