Why solar energy could mean sunny days ahead for Canadian mining

Demand is high for the metals and minerals used to build solar panels — many of which can be found under Canadian soil
By Daniel Kitts - Published on July 14, 2017
solar panel
Fourteen of the 19 metals and minerals used in building photovoltaic panels are found in Canada. (Mark Lennihan/CP)

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As Canada aims to move away from the resource industries that have traditionally fuelled its economy, increased demand for green technologies may in fact benefit one of the country’s oldest industries: mining.

No fewer than 14 of the 19 metals and minerals needed to build photovoltaic panels are found here, according to a report last month from Clean Energy Canada, a think tank based at Simon Fraser University. As a result, “Canada could emerge as a key supplier of resources for the buildout of solar power,” the report states.

And solar is booming: in 2016 alone, the U.S. and China nearly doubled their photovoltaic capacities, contributing to a 50 per cent increase in solar power worldwide compared with the previous year.

Copper is a major component of photovoltaic panels and transmission lines, and also of electric vehicles, which require four times as much wiring as those with internal combustion engines, according to the CEC report. B.C. is by far the biggest producer in the country, mining more than 345,000 tonnes in 2016. Ontario is second, having yielded more than 203,000 tonnes last year.

CEC policy director Dan Woynillowicz says the report, which he co-authored, focused only on solar panels and not on other green energy technologies. “When you expand the scope to metals and minerals needed for wind turbines and LED lightbulbs and lithium-ion batteries, the list of metals and minerals just gets longer and longer,” he explains. “And Canada is well positioned in many of those as well.”

High-capacity batteries — the kind used in electric cars and even potentially as part of the energy grid — could turn out to be a particular boon for Ontario mining. Nickel, cobalt, lithium, and graphite are all used in making next-generation batteries; Ontario has a significant nickel-mining and -processing industry, and cobalt is often found alongside other metal deposits, including nickel and copper.

But if the province and the rest of Canada are to take full advantage of the potential that green technology offers the extraction industry, they’ll need to ensure mining companies are operating at the highest standards, Woynillowicz says.

For one thing, large-scale industry has faced increased opposition from Indigenous communities and from Canadians more broadly, he says. The CEC report cites the 2014 Mount Polley copper mine disaster in B.C., where 24 million cubic metres of mine waste and contaminated water spilled into nearby lakes, as the kind of incident that makes Canadians wary of mining — and such concerns can slow down or even halt new mining operations.

Then there’s the fact that some industries are becoming more careful about where they buy their materials, Woynillowicz adds. Tesla has already promised its new battery manufacturing plant will source raw materials from North America alone, even though some observers believe doing so will be impossible. To protect their reputations, tech companies such as Apple and Tesla are sometimes more reluctant to purchase metals and minerals from countries where environmental and labour standards are poor, and Woynillowicz predicts such marketplace discernment could emerge as a powerful force in the clean energy sector.

“Maybe the production of solar power is environmentally friendly,” he says. “But if the mining practices that go into producing the metals and minerals needed for those panels is really lousy, then all of a sudden that’s going to take the shine off solar power.”

The federal government is currently reviewing its approach to environmental assessments, and Woynillowicz says it’s important that Canada and the provinces ensure there are tough regulations to keep mining companies in check.

“If you have an exemplary level of environmental performance, human rights, social [rights], Indigenous [rights], all of those things,” he explains, “then you might actually be able to find some competitive advantage in that more discerning marketplace.”

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