Myth buster energy debate

In this article I have argued that we need to find a more moderate approach to sustainability, and list several myths which prevail when it comes to the green economy and which obscure our path to preventing a sharp societal decline.

Here I pay closer attention to each of those myths, and the associated obstacles and risks.

In the last 150,000 years humans have, through mining, produced around 750 million tons (mt) of copper. According to the United States Geological Survey*, we have around 870 mt of copper reserves left. As it turns out, copper is quite rare as far as metals go, which is a pity because the only viable substitutes as an electrical conductor are silver and gold. In 2021 we mined 30.3 mt of copper, 1.3 mt of which was for green energies.

By 2030 Goldman Sachs estimates we will need 41.2 mt annually, 5.2 mt of which will be for green energies. At current mining levels (and mines don’t get built overnight) we will have a deficit of 7.7 mt per annum and growing as the world’s largest copper mine in Chile ramps down and very few new discoveries are being made. Bear in mind that this deficit arises with an almost non-existent reduction in fossil-fuel consumption – transition completely and we run out of copper really soon. And then there is nickel …

*https://copperalliance.org/sustainable-copper/about-copper/

It is widely believed that advances in technology and manufacturing were the cause of reduced cost of solar panels and wind turbines. In reality, interest rates dropped significantly, and energy prices fell dramatically (even reaching zero for oil at one stage) over the last decade. Take these two factors into account, and somewhere between 50 – 70% of the total cost reduction was from these two facts alone.

Solar panels (made from plastics and fossil fuels) rely on a key ingredient in the form of polysilicon. Polysilicon is what turns the sun’s rays into electricity. An increase in coal prices in China by 100% lead to a 300% increase in polysilicon prices. You can’t make solar panels without fossil fuels, this is just simply the truth of it, and the more expensive the fossil fuels are the more expensive panels will become.

Wind turbines suffer a similar fate in that the neodymium used in the magnets is mined using diesel equipment which has no prospect of switching to EV or hydrogen for the next decade at least. The steel and cement costs are directly linked to the coal price, so this technology is also reliant on fossil fuels. Recent estimates by Goehring & Rozencwajg* have solar power climbing almost 300% and wind by 33% in the next few years.

Making more wind turbines and solar panels isn’t going to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. In fact it will enhance the overall consumption of fossil fuels at a global level. To illustrate this point, according to data by the International Energy Agency, from 2010 to 2019 the total energy produced by renewables increased 29%, and fossil fuels increased by a corresponding 11%.

*http://gorozen.com/research/commentaries/4Q2021_Commentary

I believe we can all agree Harvard University is a credible institution. They embarked on a study of the 57,636 wind turbines in the US in 2018,* and the overall impact on the micro-climates once operational. The law of unintended consequences is sometimes not kind. The turbines have created “wind-shadows”, reducing air flow which is inadvertently heating the affected area more than would be expected. This negatively impacts the wind pattern and reduced wind over time, reducing the turbines’ output. Harvard’s conclusion was as follows: “If your perspective is the next 10 years, wind power actually has – in some respects – more climate impact than coal or gas. If your perspective is the next thousand years, then wind power has enormously less impact than coal or gas.”

The problem with this report is that it only factors the impact once the turbine is installed. An average 1.5MW turbine needs around 180 tons of steel, 9 tons of copper, 600 tons of concrete and 15 tons of carbon fibre. That has a carbon footprint of 913 tons of CO2 just for the metals. While over 20 years this becomes a small component of the total emission of the turbine, the point is that none of this energy is carbon-free, just lower in carbon footprint with potential unintended consequences. The truth is that over 1,000 years we have no clue what we will do to weather patterns by removing significant amounts of wind energy from the system.

The elephant in the room remains the mass production of solar panels. These rely on a horrible little molecule called nitrogen triflouride. It is highly toxic, has a greenhouse gas potential over 17,000 times worse than carbon dioxide ranking it second worst on the planet, and unlike methane or carbon dioxide which nature can deal with, is inorganic and therefore stays with us for close to 1,000 years. Since solar became popular, we have increased the levels of this gas by over 300%, and these levels continue to climb at astounding rates.

We cannot remove this poison, and it is accumulating fast. Either find a way to make panels without it, or ensure that when you buy a panel, you pay the premium and buy the really expensive one where you know the factory has made an effort to release as little of it into the atmosphere as possible. But then you need to understand your power isn’t going to be cheaper than Eskom, even at 12pm in the afternoon.

*https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/10/large-scale-wind-power-has-its-down-side/

If renewables were really cheaper than fossil fuels and Eskom, the mines would be falling over themselves to go off-grid immediately. That sector is arguably the most cut-throat in our country. They can install solar and wind whenever they feel like it, but their plans are only to begin installing in 2028 to 2035.

It isn’t government red tape stopping them. It is the cold, hard laws of economics. Project the Eskom tariff increases for the next 15 years, assume reductions in the cost of battery storage over the next 5 years, and the discounted cash flow analysis shows that you break even if you begin installing in several years’ time when Eskom’s tariffs have increased substantially. It is that simple.

If you choose to however look at a drag-race shootout and compare 1kwh of solar to 1kwh of Eskom at 12pm in the afternoon, yes solar is about 15% cheaper. But a Mazda 323 will get around the Le Mans racetrack faster than a rocket powered drag-racer. If you want to cover the whole track, you need battery storage, and this is expensive and is only going to get more expensive with escalating energy and commodity costs.*

*http://gorozen.com/research/commentaries/4Q2021_Commentary

At present the best batteries hold 0.7% of the energy per kilogram that diesel can. The theoretical limit is 1.6%. The limit is a hard one and cannot be surpassed as it would break the laws of physics. So if your truck fills up with 400 kg diesel (average truck), you are going to need a VERY substantial battery to match, even when you factor in that diesel engines are only 35% as efficient as electric motors.*

*https://thebulletin.org/2009/01/the-limits-of-energy-storage-technology/

By 2040 it is estimated that there will be 140 million electric vehicles on the road. This will only represent 7% of the global fleet, thus we will still be at 93% of fossil-fuel consumption for road. This assumes we have enough copper to supply into the manufacturing process, and remember that this will not include trucks. My personal opinion is that EV cars will become the premium luxury cars of the future that everyone aspires to own, but the middle and lower income will continue to own cars with internal combustion engines.

It is an indisputable fact that 100 units of energy put into an electrolyser will only produce 63-65 units of energy available as hydrogen. That then needs to be compressed or liquefied for transport, so this reduces to around 58-60 units of energy. Putting this hydrogen into a fuel cell typically only releases 40% of the hydrogen’s chemical energy into electrical energy (the rest is heat), so our 60 drops to 24 units. 24% of the energy we obtained from the hydrogen made its way to somewhere useful. The 100 units came from a solar panel, which had we put it straight into the grid would have eliminated 263 units of coal and given 100 units of electricity to charge an EV instead. On a like-for-like basis, to generate 100 units of electrical energy from hydrogen we need 416 units of solar energy, which could actually offset 1,094 units of coal.

What are we thinking? Take into account that the solar panels need 1 unit of fossil fuels upfront to create 5 units of “clean energy” over 20 years, and then you take a quarter of that as useful energy from your hydrogen, and you have a ratio of 1 unit fossil fuel to create 1.25 units of electricity from hydrogen. You are almost better off just using the fossil fuel. And I haven’t mentioned that widespread use of hydrogen would require a massive increase in the use of platinum, which is even more scarce than copper!

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