The rapid growth of the green energy sector is leading to a significant increase in demand for mining, which is causing negative impacts on water-stressed communities. Despite the arid conditions of rural Nevada, the state has extensive underground aquifers that provide vital water resources for ranchers, farmers, and ecosystems. However, the soaring demand for minerals required for green energy technologies is now posing a threat to this precious resource. This issue is not limited to the United States, as communities in South America’s lithium triangle are also experiencing the consequences of increased water usage related to mining operations driven by renewable energy demands.
Between 2017 and 2022, the demand for clean energy technologies has tripled the need for lithium and has resulted in a 70 percent increase in cobalt demand. The demand for copper, which is a key mineral in the energy transition, is expected to double by 2035. However, this is just the beginning, as the United Nations predicts that mineral production for the green energy sector will need to increase by 500 percent by 2050 to meet the growing demand. These minerals are primarily extracted from drought-affected or arid regions, including the United States, Australia, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Canada, and China.
The global water supply is already facing challenges, with estimates suggesting that half of the global population could be living in water-scarce areas by 2025. Furthermore, an additional 700 million people may face displacement due to insufficient water by 2030. This is without considering the scaled-up mining operations required for renewable energy production. Despite concerns over water scarcity, many officials and organizations who express these concerns also support energy-related mining.
The production of green energy technologies such as solar panels, electric vehicle batteries, and wind turbines relies heavily on mining and water. Critical minerals like copper, lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite require significant amounts of water for their production. Lithium extraction, for example, uses 500,000 gallons of water per metric ton. Copper production in the United States alone uses more than 100,000 gallons of water per ton. Despite criticisms of the brine extraction method for sourcing lithium due to its water consumption, other minerals used in renewable energy technologies, particularly copper, also have high water requirements.
In the United States, there is a push to increase domestic lithium production, often at the expense of proper environmental analysis. Projects like the Thacker Pass mine in Nevada have faced opposition from local ranchers and Native American communities due to concerns about groundwater protection, cultural heritage, and the environment. While impact surveys are conducted for these projects, details regarding damage mitigation and water resource protection are often lacking. This trend is expected to continue as mining operations for green energy minerals expand.
Mining projects in Nevada often involve de-watering, which requires draining critical groundwater to extract minerals from the ground. This process can negatively impact nearby springs, residential wells, plants, watersheds, and wildlife. It can lower the water table significantly and have long-term effects that may last for decades or even centuries. For example, the groundwater at the Cortez Hills project in Nevada was lowered by almost 1,200 feet, which will take a hundred years or more to recover.
Water-related protests have also occurred in South America’s lithium triangle, particularly in Chile and Argentina. Chile’s mining sector, located in the arid Atacama Desert region, has been found to have significant impacts on regional and community freshwater resources. In 2013, Chile experienced water scarcity demonstrations, with protesters highlighting how mining projects were impacting water cycles. In Argentina’s Jujuy province, indigenous communities have been blocking roads to lithium mines to protect their water and surrounding pasture land for livestock. However, these protests have faced violent clashes with law enforcement.
As companies continue to exploit the renewable energy movement, there are concerns about the environmental impact and sustainability of their practices. The Lithium Americas Corporation, involved in projects in both Nevada and Argentina, claims to be environmentally responsible but has faced criticism from local communities. In Bolivia, which has significant lithium reserves beneath the famous Salar de Uyuni salt flat, concerns are growing as neighboring countries experience water loss due to mining activities. Locals fear that more than just water resources will be affected when lithium mining expands in the region.