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Is “Cleantech” Actually Cleaner? Debunking the Misconceptions


In a world racing to combat climate change, the allure of clean energy technologies shines brighter than ever. The promise of harnessing nature's elements—sun, wind, and water—to power our lives without harm to the planet seems like a dream come true. But amidst the excitement, questions linger. Is the path to a sustainable future as clear-cut as it seems? Are these "cleantech" solutions truly cleaner? Let's dive into the complexities and realities, to separate misconceptions from the truth.

According to the 2020 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) [1], mineral demand for clean energy technologies will soar, doubling or even quadrupling by 2040. Almost all renewable energy sources like solar, wind energy and battery storage systems will heavily rely on increased mining. EVs and battery storage account for about half of the mineral demand growth and by weight, the minerals in highest demand include graphite, copper and nickel, with lithium demand growing the fastest [1]. Additionally, the demand for minerals such as concrete, steel, iron, fiberglass, polymers, aluminum, copper, zinc, and rare earth elements will intensify to support wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies. [2]


“The need for critical minerals used for renewable and clean energy technologies will increase by 500% by 2050.” - World Bank


While mining is indispensable to support the cleantech industry, consider this: approximately 15 billion tons of fossil fuels are excavated annually, which dwarf the mining requirements of the burgeoning clean energy economy. [3]  If the fossil fuel industry maintains its current trajectory, calculations show that it will lead to at least 5 to 11 times more mining activity than what a clean energy economy would necessitate in the year 2040. [4] These multipliers are set to rise due to advancements in mining extraction technology [5][6] and the shift in clean technologies from rare earth minerals to more accessible alternatives. [7]

Within this multiplier lies the true potential of renewable energy. It's not just about extraction; it's also about where energy sources are harnessed and utilized. Renewable energy generation boasts several advantages, employing resources more efficiently compared to fossil fuel energy generation. [8]

Here are a few reasons why renewable energy uses fewer resources:


Localized Generation: Renewable energy “fuel” sources such as sunshine, wind, and water can be harnessed where the power is generated in many regions. This decreases the need to haul coal, oil, or natural gas and decreases the need for transportation networks, infrastructure, and shipment vessels (pipelines, trucks, ships, trains, etc.) as required for conventional power plants. [9]

Streamlined Energy Transmission: Renewable energy can be transmitted more easily through efficient and extensive electrical transmission lines. Once the lines are in place, many of which are already, electricity can be transferred over long distances with minimal loss, making it more transferrable compared to fossil fuels that require constant daily physical transportation through pipelines, trucks, railroads, or tanker ships. [10]

Decentralization and Localized Generation Efficiency: Renewable energy technologies can be installed at various scales: residential, commercial, community and utility-scale installations. This supports decentralization and further supports energy production closer to the consumption point. This reduces transmission loss and increases overall system efficiency throughout the life of power production.

Reduced Extraction, Greater Availability, Pure: Fossil fuels and coal are finite resources and take millions of years to form from the remains of ancient plants and organisms. Further fuels and coal require extraction and refinement or preparation and washing. Renewable energy sources such as sunlight, wind and water are not buried deep within the earth, are pure in their commonly found forms, and need no processing to be utilized by renewable infrastructure. They are freely available and naturally replenished, thus reducing the need for resource-intensive extraction processes. They also do not result in the level of environmental impact associated with fossil fuel and coal extraction. [3]

End-of-Life Considerations: When evaluating the resource use of energy sources, it's essential to consider the entire lifecycle, which includes extraction, transportation, processing, and disposal. The disposal of waste byproducts, such as ash and carbon dioxide, generated due to fossil fuel combustion further exacerbates environmental impacts from the industry. In contrast, renewable energy systems produce minimal emissions and waste during operation, which leads to a decreased reliance on waste management processes.


It's undeniable that renewable energy will require an initial resource investment. However, the sustainable dividends—a reduced reliance on resource-intensive daily fuel transport, decreased refining and processing, lower power generation emissions, and a cleaner waste profile make it a more resource-efficient option overall. [11]

As we journey toward a future powered by cleaner and more sustainable technologies, the voyage demands a comprehensive understanding of the energy generation process. As with all development endeavors, it's important to note that the specific resource implications vary and depend on factors such as the geographical location, the type of renewable energy source, and the current energy infrastructure in place. However, as the world transitions toward electrification and cleaner and more sustainable energy systems, renewable energy offers significant advantages in terms of resource use and reduced environmental impact - enough to render this voyage profoundly worthwhile.


[1] IEA (2021) The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions. 

[2] Power (2021) Energy Transition Facing Potentially Debilitating Critical Mineral Supply Gap.

[3] MIT Climate Portal (2023) How does the environmental impact of mining for clean energy metals compare to mining for coal, oil and gas?

[4] A Fossil Fuel Economy Requires 535x More Mining Than a Clean Energy Economy, with corrections incorporated from Fact Check: Claim That Fossil Fuel Economy Requires Much More Mining Than Green Energy Is Wrong, but when I incorporate the fact check numbers and do the math, if the fossil fuel industry maintains its current trajectory, it will lead to approximately ten times more mining activity than what a clean energy economy would necessitate in the year 2040.

[5] Science News (2021) New, Environmentally Friendly Method To Extract And Separate Rare Earth Elements and Penn State / Penn State. (2023) Mission critical: To get critical minerals and rare earth metals from coal waste

[6] U.S. DOE (2023) Biden-Harris Administration Announces $30 Million to Build Up Domestic Supply Chain for Critical Minerals

[7] U.S. Government Accountability Office (2022) Science & Tech Spotlight: Advanced Batteries

[8] Union of Concerned Scientists (2017) Benefits of Renewable Energy Use.

[9] Gonçalves, T., Liu, Y (2020) How US Cities and Counties Are Getting Renewable Energy. World Resources Institute.

[10] American Clean Power (nd) Clean energy transmission facts.

[11] Fierreira, F., Odell, S. (2023) How does the environmental impact of mining for clean energy metals compare to mining for coal, oil and gas?. MIT Climate Portal.