The Physical Impossibility of Renewable Energy Meeting the Paris Accord Goals

15 11 2020

BY IER
AUGUST 22, 2019

Mark Mills has a new report and an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled “If You Want ‘Renewable Energy,’ Get Ready to Dig” that point out the physical impossibility of renewable energy (mainly wind and solar power) and battery storage transitioning the world to a “new energy economy.” The transition would require “the biggest expansion in mining the world has seen and would produce huge quantities of waste.” Wind turbines, solar panels, and storage batteries are made from nonrenewable materials that wear out and must be decommissioned, generating millions of tons of waste. For example, to meet the Paris accord benchmarks, the solar power required by 2050 would result in the disposal of solar panels equivalent to over double the tonnage of the world’s current plastic waste.

According to Mark Mills, building one wind turbine requires 900 tons of steel, 2,500 tons of concrete, and 45 tons of non-recyclable plastic and solar power requires even more cement, steel, glass, and other metals—notably rare earth minerals. Global demand for rare-earth minerals would need to increase by between 300 percent and 1,000 percent by 2050 to meet the Paris renewable goals. These minerals are generally mined in nations with oppressive labor practices. For more information on rare earth minerals, refer to this recent IER post.

Furthermore, mining and manufacturing require the consumption of fossil fuels. To supply half the world’s electricity using wind turbines would require nearly two billion tons of coal to produce the concrete and steel and two billion barrels of oil to make the blades. And, most (over 90 percent) of the world’s solar panels are built in Asia with electric power heavily fueled by coal.

Fossil Fuels vs. Renewables

Fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) supply 84 percent of the world’s energy—a share that has decreased only modestly from 87 percent two decades ago. Over those two decades, total world energy use rose by 50 percent—an amount equal to adding two entire United States’ worth of demand. The small percentage-point decline in the fossil fuel share of world energy use required over $2 trillion in cumulative global spending on alternatives over that period. In contrast, wind, solar, and batteries provide about 2 percent of today’s world’s energy. Despite this dichotomy, developers of the Green New Deal and others want you to believe that renewable technologies will replace fossil fuels and can do so rapidly—even within the next ten years.

Renewable energy (wind and solar power) do not have the combination of low-cost, high-energy-density, stability, safety, and portability of fossil fuels. For example, if one spends $1 million on utility-scale wind turbines or solar panels, over 30 years of operation, each of them would produce about 50 million kilowatt-hours, while an equivalent $1 million spent on a shale rig produces enough natural gas over 30 years to generate more than 300 million kilowatt-hours—over six times as much energy.

Source: The "New Energy Economy": An Exercise In Magical Thinking
Source: The “New Energy Economy”: An Exercise In Magical Thinking

Batteries

In the “new energy economy,” batteries are a major feature both to store electricity for the grid and to power electric vehicles. Because the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine, batteries would be needed to provide back-up power for wind turbines and solar panels. But, the sheer magnitude of what would be required is mind-boggling. For example, the $5 billion Tesla “Gigafactory” in Nevada is currently the world’s biggest battery manufacturing facility and its total annual production would store just three minutes’ worth of annual U.S. electricity demand. Therefore, to manufacture enough batteries to store two days’ worth of U.S. electricity demand would require almost 1,000 years of “Gigafactory” production.

About 60 pounds of batteries are needed to store the energy equivalent in one pound of fossil fuels. For every one pound of batteries produced, 50 to 100 pounds of lithium, copper, nickel, graphite, rare earths, and cobalt are mined and processed. Thus, a future of batteries for electric vehicles and back-up energy for the grid would require mining gigatons more materials as well as gigatons of materials needed to manufacture wind turbines and solar panels.

Lithium battery production today accounts for about 40 percent of lithium mining and 25 percent of cobalt mining. In an all-battery future, global mining would have to expand by more than 200 percent for copper, by a minimum of 500 percent for lithium, graphite, and rare earths, and far more for cobalt.

Comparing Batteries to Gasoline and Oil

A single electric-car battery weighs about 1,000 pounds and manufacturing it requires mining and processing over 500,000 pounds of raw materials. Using gasoline, one can extract one-tenth as much total tonnage to deliver the same number of vehicle-miles over the battery’s seven-year life.

About $200,000 worth of Tesla batteries, weighing over 20,000 pounds, are needed to store the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil. A barrel of oil weighs 300 pounds and can be stored in a $20 tank. Even an unlikely 200 percent improvement in lithium battery economics and technology would not close the gap.

Conclusion

The Green New Deal and a “new energy economy” are not physically possible despite what America’s politicians believe and what is promoted in the media. The sooner they come to grips with reality, the better for U.S. citizens, many of whom naively believe their patter. Recognizing it now means acknowledging the challenges and searching for solutions to those problems


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15 responses

15 11 2020
Don Owers

While I agree that we hear to much about green energy without deep enough studies I believe your shale gas analysis is wrong simply because shale fracking wells don’t last 30 years. This means more drilling more pipe works and more cost let alone the consequences of contamination of underground water and the air from methane leaks. Yes, we are caught between a rock and a hard place and hell awaits either course of action.

15 11 2020
mikestasse

It’s not my analysis…. The whole idea is to just compare energy sources. The mere fact fracking wells are as good as over makes it all worse….

15 11 2020
Joelle

So what do we do? Get horses? Seriously! I know alll about the end of easy energy. Enough of telling us it wont work! Then what must be done!? This era wont end well. Slowly. The next generation will wake up after covid19 in a world going dowm. Cant wait to see how the world will adapt! Going down, or slowing down… maybe for the best

15 11 2020
mikestasse

What must be done is very complex and won’t be popular because people hate change of ANY kind…. I’ve been thinking of writing a post about what I think should be done, you could write a book about it!

15 11 2020
ruraljack

This imbalance between supply and demand of energy may well be true. But I am not satisfied that the supply side does not include EFFICIENCY. The demand side of the equation is based on minimising cost (and optimising profit) and this involves a serious over consumption of energy. Just one example is the standard domestic house. It is built down to a price, not up to a standard. As a result the house must include heating hardware for winter and cooling hardware for summer – at an unnecessary cost in energy. A well designed house would need no heating or cooling hardware and need not be any more expensive than the current standard.

15 11 2020
mikestasse

I know, I’ve now built TWO such houses….. But the market is the market. I unsuccessfully tried to start a business designing so called zero energy houses, and builders came to the rescue of unsustainability. I just gave up.

15 11 2020
ruraljack

It can be done. Since 1973, I have lived sequentially in four zero emissions houses, the last two were off grid so for the last thirty years I’ve received no electricity bills and have lived in comfort. The current house has no heating or cooling gear. Its internal environment reflects the ambient variations but with only small temperature changes as the seasons roll by. Don’t give up!!

15 11 2020
mikestasse

Too late….. I’m pushing 70 now, and I personally feel we’ve reached crunch time. There’s no economy left for stuff like that, I’m just pleased I got my house livable before TSHTF.

15 11 2020
davekimble3

Joelle, the daunting fact is there is no technological solution, so Industrial Civilisation will collapse, either catastrophically or bit by bit over the next few decades. At some point the petrol at the pump will stop, and the electricity will go off. Once both have happened, there can be no way back.

If humanity is to survive, we will have to be already growing our own food without inputs from Industrial Civilisation, and yes traveling by horse. The rest of living things, on the only life-supporting planet we know of in the Universe, will be heaving a huge sigh of relief as the bulldozers and chainsaws fall silent, while struggling to survive with global warming. Many species may go extinct, as they have always done, but their places will be filled by better adapted species.

There are those who say that putting the facts out there is causing “energy-anxiety” in the young, and that we mustn’t cause loss of hope of a fix. That is complete bullshit.

15 11 2020
Bruce Teakle

Hi Mike, this is an interesting essay, but it comes from the “Institute for Energy Research”, an American climate sceptic, “free enterprise” joint. This doesn’t invalidate the argument but I’d file the essay under the “Denialists versus Delusionals” heading – which I think covers most discussion of climate change and energy futures.

15 11 2020
mikestasse

Hi Bruce, yeah I knew this, but if Donald Trump told you that the Earth was round, would you refuse to believe him because of who he is?

15 11 2020
Bruce Teakle

Yes, I agree that the argument – that we have no chance of replacing fossil energy with renewables – is valid. It’s super-important to recognise the energy and materials capital in renewable energy infrastructure make “zero emissions” impossible. It’s just unfortunate that it’s being made by the denial camp.
But now I’ll be looking out for a black armoured limousine to drive down our bush track bringing The Donald to tell me the earth is round.

15 11 2020
Hugh Spencer

Oh Dear Dog! Even commentators on this blog are still immersed in the great myth – things will get better and better (and powered by renewable energy). Or,
human ingenuity is so great (think Tokomaks) that TECHNOLOGY will get us out of this mess. It won’t. It can’t. There are too many of us for starters, with expectations of living a US style life. The idea of reducing our energy wants (as opposed to needs) is anathema. “Oh you want us to live in caves again?” (I should tell you caves are in short supply – and they have other residents that might object to your intrusion). I am slowly realising the unbelievable levels of technological ignorance that exists in the “civilised” world. People have no idea of the impacts their lifestyle and technological choices make (and, I suspect, they don’t care).

15 11 2020
Hamish McGregor

Probably for copyright reasons, you have not posted the entire Wall St. Journal op-ed (behind a paywall), or the report at manhattan-institute.org — this makes it difficult to determine which words are yours and which come from Mark Mills.

Assuming the following are your words – “Recognizing [reality] now means acknowledging the challenges and searching for solutions to those problems.”

In Mark’s Executive Summary he writes – This paper highlights the physics of energy to illustrate why there is no possibility that the world is undergoing—or can undergo—a near-term transition to a “new energy economy.”

So Mark clearly understands the impossibility (“no possibility”).

Tut tut. The world has a predicament not a problem. Problems may have solutions. Predicaments we attempt to live with. The global-economy has lost it’s job and is now (figuratively) living on it’s credit card. We are massively overpopulated. The end of the party is already here. We have gone off the cliff and are only waiting for the collective realization.

18 11 2020
DavidS

Yes, renewables saving the planet is a lie – initially a somewhat cynical decision by the green movement to sell hopium – now they’ve started believing their own lie.

But equally the idea 8+ billion of us can return to the land and live a post-industrial agrarian lifestyle – is also a lie

We simply cannot feed 8+ billion people without fossil fuel inputs.

Take your pick on estimates of what population is sustainable 1-2 billion ? Given our already severely degraded ecosystem – which will get truly trashed when industrial civilization crashes – then I suspect it will be a lot less then the lower estimate.

Anyway it doesn’t matter what number you choose – its a heck of a lot less than 8 billion – the collapse of industrial civilization will be truly horrific and utterly chaotic

There certainly won’t be any horses left

No farming community – not matter how “resilient” it might be now – will withstand the collapse – I can’t see why you would even want to try. At best you can buy a few years to witness the chaotic descent around you – personally I prefer not to.

And yes – it might be a dark and hopeless message – but false solutions, an unwillingness to face facts is guaranteed to lead us into the abyss.

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