The Greening of The West Leaves Other Countries a Devastated, Toxic Mess

8 07 2019

While the West receives shiny new products with the promise of saving the planet, places like Mongolia and Chile are suffering greatly. From ACH News.

I was driving yesterday and found myself amazed at how many hybrid cars there are now, remembering the “wait list” when the Prius first came out. It’s a booming business just getting started. Solar technology is everywhere. There are “solar farms” to enable entire cities to run off of solar panels. Wind turbines dot landscapes across the country. As climate change is a hot topic now (no pun intended), the West is doing its part by “greening” its energy usage and converting to alternative energy sources, like solar or wind power. Cars are traded in for the newest hybrid. It’s all being done because it’s “renewable” and “carbon neutral”.

As a culture, we are myopic. We only see what we want to see. We only see what the culture wants us to see and in this case, the culture wants us to see how amazing it is to buy a solar panel/hybrid car/wind turbine and do our part to curb global warming. We do it and feel great giving the culture our money, knowing, when we go to bed, we did this incredible, Earth-saving venture.

But what if we were really informed? What if we were given all the information on the creation of this “green” product? What if our “greening” was really, at the core, just more destruction?

Let’s visit a couple of places where minerals are mined for the production of our “alternative, save-the-Earth, green technology”.

Baotou, China, Inner Mongolia
Baotou, China: A toxic lake of mine and refinery tailings stretches for over 3.5 miles from Baogang Iron and Steel Corporation. One ton of rare earth produces 75 ton of acidic waste water, a cocktail of acids, heavy metals, carcinogens and radioactive material at three times background radiation. Photo: Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

Most people have never heard of Baotou, China. The same people probably could not (or would not) want to imagine life without it.

Baotou is one of the world’s largest suppliers of “rare earth” minerals. These are elements that are used in the manufacturing of tech gadgets (smart phones) and also our “green alternative energy”: magnets for wind turbines and parts for electric car motors. China produced 95% of the entire world’s supply of rare earth elements. Minerals are mined at the Bayan Obo Mine, just north of Baotou and processed at Baogang Steel and Rare Earth Complex. The rare earth minerals which come from this plant, primarily neodymium and cerium, are actually not so rare and can be found dispersed all over the planet. The problem lies in the extraction. In an article from BBC Future reporter, Tim Maughan (led by the group, Unknown Fields) says so eloquently,

Rare earth discharge, Baotou, China

The intriguing thing about both neodymium and cerium is that while they’re called rare earth minerals, they’re actually fairly common. Neodymium is no rarer than copper or nickel and quite evenly distributed throughout the world’s crust. While China produces 90% of the global market’s neodymium, only 30% of the world’s deposits are located there. Arguably, what makes it, and cerium, scarce enough to be profitable are the hugely hazardous and toxic process needed to extract them from ore and to refine them into usable products. For example, cerium is extracted by crushing mineral mixtures and dissolving them in sulphuric and nitric acid, and this has to be done on a huge industrial scale, resulting in a vast amount of poisonous waste as a byproduct. It could be argued that China’s dominance of the rare earth market is less about geology and far more about the country’s willingness to take an environmental hit that other nations shy away from.

Google Earth shows us the size of this lake that supports no life.

In a place that was once filled with farms as far as the eye could see, now lies a lake (which are called “tailing ponds), visible from Google Earth, filled with radioactive toxic sludge. The water is so contaminated that not even algae will grow. Maughan describes the chill he felt when he saw the lake: “It’s a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying”. Because the reservoir was not properly lined when it was built, waste leaked into the groundwater, killing off livestock, making residents sick and destroyed any chance of farming. In reality, though, farmers have long been displaced by factories. The people that remain are experiencing diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems. Residents of what is now known as the “rare-earth capital of the world” are inhaling solvent vapors, particularly sulphuric acid (used for extraction), as well as coal dust. But hey, we need wind turbines to save the planet. And the electric car is definitely going to reduce carbon emissions.

I’m sorry to say that there is no amount of “greening” that going to remove this toxic sludge from the lives of those who live in Baotou. We are stealing the Earth from others. Our logic that solar/wind/the electric car is going to save the planet, instead of the most logical action of using far less, is destroying faraway lands and lives. It’s easy for us to sweep it all under the rug since we are not the ones directly affected by this lust for more energy consumption. We are simply sold on the latest and greatest technology that will save the planet and make our insatiable energy consumption a little bit easier to digest.

The public must be made aware of this catastrophe.

We must be willing to change or face the fact that people and earth and animals are dying for our inability to change.

Salar de Atacama, Atacama Desert, Chile

The International Energy Agency forecasts that the number of electric vehicles on the road around the world will hit 125 million by 2030. Right now, the number sits around 3.1 million. In order to support this growth, a lot of lithium is needed for the batteries to run this fleet. It is this lithium extraction that is destroying northern Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Lithium separation ponds, Atacama, Chile

Lithium is found in the brine of the salt flats, located in Chile. To extract the lithium from Salar de Atacama, holes are drilled into the flats to pump the brine to the surface. This allows lithium carbonate to be extracted through a chemical process. The whole process requires a lot of water. So much water in fact that the once life-supporting oasis is now a barren wasteland.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Sara Plaza tells the story heard time and time again: “No one comes here anymore, because there’s not enough grass for the animals,” Plaza says. “But when I was a kid, there was so much water you could mistake this whole area for the sea.” She recalls walking with her family’s sheep along an ancient Inca trail that flowed between wells and pastures. Now, an engine pumps fresh water from beneath the mostly dry Tilopozo meadow. “Now mining companies are taking the water,” she says.

The race for lithium extraction is viewed as a noble one. Electric cars are sold as a ticket to salvation from Climate Change. Electric auto makers want to make it easier and cheaper for drivers to convert to “clean”, battery-powered replacements for “dirty” combustion engines. Rather, they want more money and will sell us the “green” theory.

Extracting Atacama’s lithium means pumping large amounts of water and churning up salty mud known as brine. In Salar de Atacama, the heroic mission of saving the planet through electric cars is leaving another Indigenous community devastated.

If this was really about saving the planet, there would be regulations on single drivers in cars. Public transportation would be at the forefront, not affordable priced electric cars that EVERYBODY can own. Let’s be real here. The people that are poised to benefit the most from “green” energy are companies such as  Albemarle Corp. and Soc. Quimica & Minera de Chile SA, who are responsible for mining most of Chile’s lithium.

Sergio Cubillos, president of Atacama People’s Council, stands on an empty water tank at the village of Peine. Photo: Cristobal Olivares/Bloomberg

The locals, whose families have lived here for thousands of years, are not benefiting.

From Bloomberg: “The falling water levels are felt by local people. Peine, the village closest to the mining, has a license to pump 1.5 liters of water per second to supply 400 residents and a transient population of mine workers that can rise as high as 600. BHP’s Escondida copper mine has a license to pump 1,400 liters per second. Albemarle and SQM, the big lithium miners, have licenses to pump around 2,000 liters per second of brine.”

“We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining,” says Cristina Dorador, a Chilean biologist who studies microbial life in the Atacama desert. 

Which begs the question: What is “green technology“?

The Earth is green technology. The blade of grass that grows towards the light is green technology. The breath of fresh air that is given to us by the plants on land and the plants in the ocean is green technology. The spring water that rises from the depths, mysteriously and miraculously, is green technology. This fragile environment that surrounds us, the unexplainable, intricately woven web of life that holds us, the environment that is degrading rapidly from our greedy lust for more and more, that is green technology. What we are being sold today from companies who are leading the rat-race of civilization is not green. This green technology that they speak of is actually dark red, almost black, stained with the radioactive, desecrated blood of people and earth.

In closing, from Derrick Jensen:

“There is no free lunch. Actions have consequences, and when you steal from others, the others no longer have what you stole from them. This is as true when this theft is from nonhumans as it is when it’s from humans.

But, as Upton Sinclair said, “It’s hard to make a man understand something when his job depends on him not understanding it.” It’s even harder to make people understand something when their whole way of life depends on them not understanding it.”





Not so good news

16 04 2019

This is Tim Watkins at his best I think….. I wish I had time to write well researched articles like this, but I have a flailing mower arriving today, the double glazed windows at the end of the month, and the front wall to build in preparation of this event. Never a dull moment around here.

Put simply, if you cannot turn on your lights, operate your business or recharge your electric car, because there is no electricity, it is little comfort to learn that on a good day the grid is capable of supplying more electricity than you might need.

From the truly amazing Consciousness of Sheep website…

Protesters today intend bringing central London to a standstill by blockading several major arterial roads into the capital.  For once, this has nothing to do with Brexit.  Instead, it concerns the increasingly urgent call for government to “do something” about climate change.  Exactly what that “something” is that must be done is a little less clear, since current environmental concerns are almost always pared down to concern about the carbon dioxide emitted by cars and power stations.  Although how exactly this relates to the mass die-off of species resulting from industrial agriculture and deforestation, or growing oceanic dead zones and plastic islands, is far from clear.

Protesting environmental concerns involves a high degree of denial and self-deception; as it is based on two gross errors.  The first is the irrational belief that governments have the means to respond to the predicament we find ourselves in.  As a corrective to this, just look at the dog’s breakfast that the current British government has managed to make out of what is a simple (by comparison) trade negotiation.  Anyone who seriously thinks these clowns are going to do anything positive (save for by accident) for the environment is displaying almost clinical levels of delusion.   The second error is in believing the often unspoken conspiracy theory that insists that the only thing standing between us and the promised zero-carbon future is corrupt politicians and their corporate backers, who insist on putting the needs of the fossil fuel industry ahead of life on planet earth.

To maintain these deceits, a large volume of propaganda must be put out in order to prove that the zero-carbon future is possible if only the politicians would act in the way the people want.  So it is that we are treated to a barrage of media stories claiming that this town, city, country or industry runs entirely on “green” energy (don’t mention carbon offsetting).  Indeed, left to their own devices, we are told, the green energy industry is already well on the way to building the zero-carbon future we asked for; we just need the politicians to pull their fingers out and we could easily get there in just a few years’ time.  For example, Joshua S Hill at Green Technica tells us that:

“Renewable energy sources now account for around a third of all global power capacity, according to new figures published this week by the International Renewable Energy Agency, which revealed 171 gigawatts (GW) of new renewable capacity was installed in 2018…

“This brings total renewable energy generation capacity up to a whopping 2,351 GW as of the end of 2018, accounting for around a third of the globe’s total installed electricity capacity. Hydropower remains the largest renewable energy source based on installed capacity, with 1,172 GW, followed by wind energy with 564 GW and solar power with 480 GW.”

Stories like these play into the fantasy that we are well on our way to reversing climate change, and that all we need now is some “green new deal” mobilisation to replace the final two-thirds of our energy capacity with non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies to finish the job.  If only it was that simple.

Notice the apparently innocuous word “capacity.”  This is perhaps the least important information about electricity.  Far more important is the amount that is actually generated.  The US Energy Information Administration explains the difference:

Electricity generation capacity is the maximum electric output an electricity generator can produce under specific conditions. Nameplate generator capacity is determined by the generator’s manufacturer and indicates the maximum output of electricity a generator can produce without exceeding design thermal limits….

Electricity generation is the amount of electricity a generator produces over a specific period of time. For example, a generator with 1 megawatt (MW) capacity that operates at that capacity consistently for one hour will produce 1 megawatthour (MWh) of electricity. If the generator operates at only half that capacity for one hour, it will produce 0.5 MWh of electricity…

Capacity factor of electricity generation is a measure (expressed as a percent) of how often an electricity generator operates during a specific period of time using a ratio of the actual output to the maximum possible output during that time period.”

In terms of understanding where we are and where we are heading, “electricity generation” is far more important than “capacity”; which only tells us how wind, wave, tide and solar technologies would perform if it were possible (it isn’t) for them to generate electricity all day (and night) every day.  Put simply, if you cannot turn on your lights, operate your business or recharge your electric car, because there is no electricity, it is little comfort to learn that on a good day the grid is capable of supplying more electricity than you might need.  From a planning point of view, knowing the capacity factor for various generating technologies matters because it gives an insight into how efficient they are.  A nuclear or fossil fuel power plant that runs more or less continuously for more than 60 years is likely to require far fewer inputs and far less land area than, say, vast solar farms (which have to be replaced every 10-20 years) that can only generate electricity when the sun is shining.

So where do non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies stand when it comes to electricity generation?  According to the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy, in 2017 human civilisation generated 25551.3 Terawatt hours (TW/h) of electricity.  Of this:

  • Non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies provided 2151.5 TW/h (8.4%)
  • Nuclear provided 2635.6 TW/h (10.3%)
  • Hydroelectric dams provided 4059.9 TW/h (15.9%)
  • Fossil fuels provided 16521.7 TW/h (64.7%).

What this tells us is that far more non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting capacity has to be installed than the electricity that it can actually generate – it has a low capacity factor.  Indeed, Hill’s “around a third” figure includes the much larger capacity of hydroelectric dams (which have environmental issues of their own) for which there is little scope for further installation.  Only by adding in nuclear power can we get to a third of electricity generation from low-carbon sources.

Even this, however, misleads us when it comes to environmental impacts.  The implicit assumption is that non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies are still valuable despite their inefficiency because they are replacing fossil fuels.  But this is not why countries like the UK, Saudi Arabia and (for insane reasons) Germany have been deploying them.  In the first two cases, the deployment of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies is primarily to maximise the amount of fossil fuels available for export.  In Germany’s case, renewables that might otherwise have weaned the economy off coal were deployed instead as a replacement for nuclear; leaving the economy overly-dependent upon often dirty (lignite) brown coal; and forcing them to turn to Russian gas as a future substitute for coal.  These states are not, however, where most of the world’s largely fossil fuelled industrial processes take place.  Asia accounts for the majority of global industry, and Asian economies use non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies to supplement fossil fuels rather than to replace them; although Hill does not clarify this when he tells us that:

“Specifically, solar energy dominated in 2018, installing an impressive 94 GW… Asia continued to lead the way with 64 GW — accounting for around 70% of the global expansion last year — thanks to dominant performances from China, India, Japan, and South Korea.”

While, of course, electricity generated from wind, wave, sunlight and tide is energy that might otherwise have come from fossil fuels, the impact should not be exaggerated.  According to the 2019 edition of the BP Energy Outlook, in 2017:

  • Non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies provided 4 percent of global primary energy
  • Nuclear provided 4 percent
  • Hydroelectric 7 percent
  • Gas 23 percent
  • Coal 28 percent
  • Oil 34 percent.

Just our additional energy demand since 2015 has been sufficient to account for all of the non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies deployed to date.  That is, if we had simply accepted 2015 levels of consumption, we need not have deployed these technologies at all.  And, of course, if we had stabilized our energy consumption a couple of decades ago we could have left the bulk of the fossil fuels we now consume in the ground:

World Energy Consumption 2017
Source: Global carbon emissions 2007-17

What is really at issue here is that – to quote the late George H.W. Bush – “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.”  That is, we can have any energy transformation we like, so long as it does not involve any limitation on our continued exploitation and consumption of the planet we live on.  The too-big-too-fail banks must havepermanent economic growth and that, in turn, means that we have no choice other than to keep growing our energy consumption.

The trouble is that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible.  Worse still, as the energy return on investment (aka Net Energy) declines, the increased energy and monetary cost of energy production causes the energy and monetary value available to the wider (non-energy) economy to decline.  In the first two decades of the century, this has caused an intractable financial crisis coupled to a massive decline in prosperity across the developed economy (resulting in the collapse in consumption of the “retail apocalypse”) which is beginning to generate political instability.  In the 2020s the crisis is set to worsen as the energy cost of producing a whole range of mineral resources raises their market price above that which can be sustained in the developed states (where most of the consumption occurs).  The result – whether we like it or not – is that we face a more or less sharp drop in consumption in the next couple of decades.

This raises questions about the purpose to which we deploy non-renewable renewable-energy harvesting technologies.  For several decades, people in the green movement have engaged in private arguments about whether they should spell out the likely localised and de-materialised economies that giving up or running out of accessible fossil fuels necessarily entails.  Since this would be politically toxic, most have chosen to promote the lie that humanity can simply replace coal, gas and oil with some combination of wind, wave, tide and sunlight without economic growth even needing to pause for breath.  This, in turn, has allowed our young people to believe that intransigence is the only thing preventing our political leaders from de-carbonising our economies.

Exactly what our politicians are told about our predicament is a matter of conjecture.  Most, I suspect, are as clueless as the population at large.  Nevertheless the permanent civil services across the planet have produced a raft of reports into the full spectrum of the catastrophe facing us, from the damage we are doing to the environment to the rapidly depleting stocks of key mineral resources and productive agricultural land, and the more imminent collapse in the global financial system.  And the more they become aware of this predicament, the more they realise just exactly what the word “unsustainable” actually means.  One way or another, six out of every seven humans alive today is going to have to go – either by a planned de-growth or via a more or less rapid collapse of our (largely fossil-fuelled) interconnected global life support systems.

With this in mind, there is something truly immoral about perpetuating the myth that we can maintain business as usual simply by swapping non-renewable renewable-energy harvesting technologies for fossil fuels.  This is because maintaining the myth results in precisely the kind of misallocation that we already witnessed in those states that are using renewable electricity to bolster fossil fuel production and consumption.  The more we keep doing this, the harder the crash is going to be when one or other critical component (finance, energy or resources) is no longer widely available.

There is a place for renewable energy in our future; just not the one we were promised.  As we are forced to re-localise and de-grow both our economies and our total population, the use of non-renewable renewable-energy harvesting technologies to maintain critical infrastructure such as health systems, water treatment and sewage disposal, and some key agricultural and industrial processes would make the transition less deadly.  More likely, however, is that we will find the technologies we need to prevent the combination of war, famine and pestilence that otherwise awaits us will have been squandered on powering oil wells, coal mines, electric car chargers, computer datacentres and cryptocurrencies (none of which are edible by the way).

At this stage, all one can say to the climate protestors and to the “green” media that encourage them is, “be careful what you wish for… it might just come true!”





A reality check on Renewable Energy

23 10 2018

Hat tip to my friend Shane who put me onto this TedX lecture…….  well worth sharing with your ecotopian friends! It does show how Australia – and Canada –  with very low population densities, are in not a bad position, except of course for the fact they are nowhere near the places with high densitity populations. You can’t beat arithmetics and physics…….

How much land mass would renewables need to power a nation like the UK? An entire country’s worth. In this pragmatic talk, David MacKay tours the basic mathematics that show worrying limitations on our sustainable energy options and explains why we should pursue them anyway. (Filmed at TEDxWarwick.) Lesson by David MacKay.





Primary Energy

27 08 2018

The internet is constantly bombarded with articles about how we need to go (or even ARE going) 100% renewable energy and get rid of fossil fuels…… now don’t get me wrong, I completely agree, it’s just that these people have no idea of the repercussions, nor of the size of the task at hand….)

Renewable energy zealots even believe that as more and more renewables are deployed, fossil fuels are being pushed out of the way, becoming irrelevant. Seriously.

Nothing of the sort is happening. In a recent article, Gail Tverberg wrote this…:

Of the 252 million tons of oil equivalent (MTOE) energy consumption added in 2017, wind ADDED 37 MTOE and solar ADDED 26 MTOE. Thus, wind and solar amounted to about 25% of total energy consumption ADDED in 2017. Fossil fuels added 67% of total energy consumption added in 2017, and other categories added the remaining 8%. [my emphasis on added…]

To put this in a graphic way, look at this…..

primary energy

Primary energy consumption has almost trebled since 1971, and renewables still only account for 2%…… while oil coal and gas has grown as a total percentage at the expense of nuclear. And…..  surprise surprise, OIL! Nothing to do with Peak Oil I suppose……

There is simply no way renewables will ever replace fossil fuels. California, with the aim of going 100% renewables doesn’t even have the necessary land available for the purpose according to some recent research…….

Last year, global solar capacity totaled about 219,000 megawatts. That means an all-renewable California would need more solar capacity in the state than currently exists on the entire planet. Sure, California can (and will) add lots of new rooftop solar over the coming decades. But Jacobson’s plan would also require nearly 33,000 megawatts of concentrated solar plants, or roughly 87 facilities as large as the 377-megawatt Ivanpah solar complex now operating in the Mojave Desert. Ivanpah, which covers 5.4 square miles, met fierce opposition from conservationists due to its impact on the desert tortoise, which is listed as a threatened species under the federal and California endangered species acts.

Wind energy faces similar problems. The Department of Energy has concluded in multiple reports over the last decade that no matter where they are located — onshore or offshore — wind-energy projects have a footprint that breaks down to about 3 watts per square meter.

To get to Jacobson’s 124,608 megawatts (124.6 billion watts) of onshore wind capacity, California would need 41.5 billion square meters, or about 16,023 square miles, of turbines. To put that into perspective, the land area of Los Angeles County is slightly more than 4,000 square miles — California would have to cover a land area roughly four times the size of L.A. County with nothing but the massive windmills. Turning over even a fraction of that much territory to wind energy is unlikely. In 2015, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban large wind turbines in unincorporated areas. Three other California counties — San Diego, Solano and Inyo — have also passed restrictions on turbines.

Last year, the head of the California Wind Energy Assn. told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “We’re facing restrictions like that all around the state…. It’s pretty bleak in terms of the potential for new development.”

Don’t count on offshore wind either. Given the years-long battle that finally scuttled the proposed 468-megawatt Cape Wind project — which called for dozens of turbines to be located offshore Massachusetts — it’s difficult to imagine that Californians would willingly accept offshore wind capacity that’s 70 times as large as what was proposed in the Northeast.

To expand renewables to the extent that they could approach the amount of energy needed to run our entire economy would require wrecking vast onshore and offshore territories with forests of wind turbines and sprawling solar projects. Organizations like 350.org tend to dismiss the problem by claiming, for example, that the land around turbines can be farmed or that the placement of solar facilities can be “managed.” But rural landowners don’t want industrial-scale energy projects in their communities any more than coastal dwellers or suburbanites do.

The grim land-use numbers behind all-renewable proposals aren’t speculation. Arriving at them requires only a bit of investigation, and yes, that we do the math.

“Without coal we won’t survive”. Yet coal will/could kill us all. It’s the difference between a problem and a predicament…. problems have solutions, predicaments need management. Here’s a trailer of a movie soon to be released….




Not so renewables

12 05 2018

Lifted from the excellent consciousness of sheep blog…..

For all practical purposes, solar energy (along with the wind, waves and tides that it drives) is unending.  Or, to put it more starkly, the odds of human beings being around to witness the day when solar energy no longer exists are staggeringly low.  The same, of course, cannot be said for the technologies that humans have developed to harvest this energy.  Indeed, the term “renewable” is among the greatest PR confidence tricks ever to be played upon an unsuspecting public, since solar panels and wind (and tidal and wave) turbines are very much a product of and dependent upon the fossil carbon economy.

Until now, this inconvenient truth has not been seen as a problem because our attention has been focussed upon the need to lower our dependency on fossil carbon fuels (coal, gas and oil).  In developed states like Germany, the UK and some of the states within the USA, wind and solar power have reduced the consumption of coal-generated electricity.  However, the impact of so-called renewables on global energy consumption remains negligible; accounting for less than three percent of total energy consumption worldwide.

A bigger problem may, however, be looming as a result of the lack of renewability of the renewable energy technologies themselves.  This is because solar panels and wind turbines do not follow the principles of the emerging “circular economy” model in which products are meant to be largely reusable, if not entirely renewable.

dead turbine

According to proponents of the circular economy model such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the old fossil carbon economy is based on a linear process in which raw materials and energy are used to manufacture goods that are used and then discarded:

 

This approach may have been acceptable a century ago when there were less than two billion humans on the planet and when consumption was largely limited to food and clothing.  However, as the population increased, mass consumption took off and the impact of our activities on the environment became increasingly obvious, it became clear that there is no “away” where we can dispose of all of our unwanted waste.  The result was the shift to what was optimistically referred to as “recycling.”  However, most of what we call recycling today is actually “down-cycling” – converting relatively high value goods into relatively low value materials:

 

The problem with this approach is that the cost of separating small volumes of high-value materials (such as the gold in electrical circuits) is far higher than the cost of mining and refining them from scratch.  As a result, most recycling involves the recovery of large volumes of relatively low value materials like aluminium, steel and PET plastic.  The remainder of the waste stream ends up in landfill or, in the case of toxic and hazardous products in special storage facilities.

In a circular economy, products would be designed as far as possible to be reused, bring them closer to what might realistically be called “renewable” – allowing that the second law of thermodynamics traps us into producing some waste irrespective of what we do:

 

Contrary to the “renewables” label, it turns out that solar panels and wind turbines are anything but.  They are dependent upon raw resources and fossil carbon fuels in their manufacture and, until recently, little thought had been put into how to dispose of them at the end of their working lives.  Since both wind turbines and solar panels contain hazardous materials, they cannot simply be dumped in landfill.  However, their composition makes them – at least for now – unsuited to the down-cycling processes employed by commercial recycling facilities.

While solar panels have more hazardous materials than wind turbines, they may prove to be more amenable to down-cycling, since the process of dismantling a solar panel is at least technically possible.  With wind turbines it is a different matter, as Alex Reichmuth at Basler Zeitung notes:

“The German Wind Energy Association estimates that by 2023 around 14,000 MW of installed capacity will lose production, which is more than a quarter of German wind power capacity on land. How many plants actually go off the grid depends on the future electricity price. If this remains as deep as it is today, more plants could be shut down than newly built.

“However, the dismantling of wind turbines is not without its pitfalls. Today, old plants can still be sold with profit to other parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, Russia or North Africa, where they will continue to be used. But the supply of well-maintained old facilities is rising and should soon surpass demand. Then only the dismantling of plants remains…

“Although the material of steel parts or copper pipes is very good recyclable. However, one problem is the rotor blades, which consist of a mixture of glass and carbon fibers and are glued with polyester resins.”

According to Reichmuth, even incinerating the rotor blades will cause problems because this will block the filters used in waste incineration plants to prevent toxins being discharged into the atmosphere.  However, the removal of the concrete and steel bases on which the turbines stand may prove to be the bigger economic headache:

“In a large plant, this base can quickly cover more than 3,000 tons of reinforced concrete and often reach more than twenty meters deep into the ground… The complete removal of the concrete base can quickly cost hundreds of thousands of euros.”

It is this economic issue that is likely to scupper attempts to develop a solar panel recycling industry.  In a recent paper in the International Journal of Photoenergy, D’Adamo et. al. conclude that while technically possible, current recycling processes are too expensive to be commercially viable.  As Nate Berg at Ensia explains:

“Part of the problem is that solar panels are complicated to recycle. They’re made of many materials, some hazardous, and assembled with adhesives and sealants that make breaking them apart challenging.

“’The longevity of these panels, the way they’re put together and how they make them make it inherently difficult to, to use a term, de-manufacture,’ says Mark Robards, director of special projects for ECS Refining, one of the largest electronics recyclers in the U.S. The panels are torn apart mechanically and broken down with acids to separate out the crystalline silicon, the semiconducting material used by most photovoltaic manufacturers. Heat systems are used to burn up the adhesives that bind them to their armatures, and acidic hydro-metallurgical systems are used to separate precious metals.

“Robards says nearly 75 percent of the material that gets separated out is glass, which is easy to recycle into new products but also has a very low resale value…”

Ironically, manufacturers’ efforts to drive down the price of solar panels make recycling them even more difficult by reducing the amount of expensive materials like silver and copper for which there is demand in recycling.

In Europe, regulations for the disposal of electrical waste were amended in 2012 to incorporate solar panels.  This means that the cost of disposing used solar panels rests with the manufacturer.  No such legislation exists elsewhere.  Nor is it clear whether those costs will be absorbed by the manufacturer or passed on to consumers.

Since only the oldest solar panels and wind turbines have to be disposed of at present, it might be that someone will figure out how to streamline the down-cycling process.  As far more systems come to the end of their life in the next decade, volume may help drive down costs.  However, we cannot bank on this.  The energy and materials required to dismantle these technologies may well prove more expensive than the value of the recovered materials.  As Kelly Pickerel at Solar Power World concedes:

“System owners recycle their panels in Europe because they are required to. Panel recycling in an unregulated market (like the United States) will only work if there is value in the product. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) detailed solar panel compositions in a 2016 report and found that c-Si modules contained about 76% glass, 10% polymer (encapsulant and backsheet), 8% aluminum (mostly the frame), 5% silicon, 1% copper and less than 0.1% of silver, tin and lead. As new technologies are adopted, the percentage of glass is expected to increase while aluminum and polymers will decrease, most likely because of dual-glass bifacial designs and frameless models.

“CIGS thin-film modules are composed of 89% glass, 7% aluminum and 4% polymers. The small percentages of semiconductors and other metals include copper, indium, gallium and selenium. CdTe thin-film is about 97% glass and 3% polymer, with other metals including nickel, zinc, tin and cadmium telluride.

“There’s just not a large amount of money-making salvageable parts on any type of solar panel. That’s why regulations have made such a difference in Europe.”

Ultimately, even down-cycling these supposedly “renewable” technologies will require state intervention.  Or, to put it another way, the public – either as consumers or taxpayers – are going to have to pick up the tab in the same way as they are currently subsidising fossil carbon fuels and nuclear.  The question that the proponents of these technologies dare not ask, is how far electorates are prepared to put up with these increasing costs before they turn to politicians out of the Donald Trump/ Malcolm Turnbull stable who promise the cheapest energy irrespective of its environmental impact.





A question too obvious…

25 04 2018

Every now and again someone poses a question so obvious that you wonder why nobody asked it before.  When that happens, it is usually because it reveals an unconscious narrative that you have been following.  It is precisely because it jars with what you thought you knew that it is so unsettling.  And, of course, most people will seek some means of avoiding the ramifications of the question; such as questioning the motives of the person asking it.

So it is that Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” Michael Shellenberger poses just such an apparently innocuous question:

“If solar and wind are so cheap, why are they making electricity so expensive?”

Image result for grid renewables

There are clearly merits to this question.  The spiralling cost of electricity played a major role in the recent Australian election.  In Britain, even the neoliberal Tory government has been obliged to introduce legislation to cap energy prices; while the Labour opposition threatens to dispense with the private energy market altogether.  Across the USA prices are spiralling ever upward, making Trump’s pro-fossil fuel stance popular for large numbers of Americans:

“Over the last year, the media have published story after story after story about the declining price of solar panels and wind turbines.  People who read these stories are understandably left with the impression that the more solar and wind energy we produce, the lower electricity prices will become.

“And yet that’s not what’s happening. In fact, it’s the opposite.

“Between 2009 and 2017, the price of solar per watt declined by 75 percent while the price of wind declined by 50 percent.  And yet — during the same period — the price of electricity in places that deployed significant quantities of renewables increased dramatically.”

According to Shellenberger, countries and states that have led the green energy charge have also led the charge to higher electricity prices.  Denmark has seen a 100 percent price increase, Germany 51 percent and California 24 percent.  At face value, these electricity price increases flatly contradict the narrative that we – and especially our governments – have been sold: that ever cheaper renewable energy technologies are the solution to our energy security and climate change problems.

Since the price of coal and gas has also fallen, we cannot point to fossil fuels as the cause of increasing energy prices.  That is, rushing to replace “dirty” fossil fuel power stations with even more “cheap” wind turbines and solar panels is unlikely to halt the rise in energy prices.

This brings us back to the apparently cheap renewables.  Could there be something about them that has caused prices to rise?

Once again, challenging the narrative helps expose the problem.  As with the term “renewable” itself, the problem is with our failure to examine the whole picture.  While to all intents and purposes, sunlight and wind are inexhaustible sources of energy, the technologies that harness and convert that energy into useful electrical energy are not – both are highly dependent on oil-based global supply chains.  In the same way, while the cost of manufacturing and deploying wind turbines and solar panels has dropped sharply in the past 20 years, the opposite is true of the deliverable electricity they generate.

For all the talk about this or that organisation, city or country generating 100 percent of its electricity from renewables, the reality is that the majority of their (and our) electricity is generated from gas together with smaller volumes of nuclear and coal.  Just because a company like Apple or Google pays extra for us to pretendthat it doesn’t use fossil fuels does not change the reality that without fossil fuels those companies would be out of business.  And that isn’t going to change unless someone can find a way of making the sun shine at night and the wind to blow 24/7/365.

The economic problem that Shellenberger points to is simply that the value of renewable electricity is in inverse proportion to its availability.  That is, when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, additional electricity is at a premium.  When the sun is blazing and the wind is blowing on the other hand, there is often more electricity than is needed.  The result is that the value of that electricity falls.  In both circumstances, however, the monetary costs fall on the fossil fuel and nuclear generators that provide baseload and back-up capacity.  When there is insufficient renewable electricity, they have to be paid more to increase their output.  When there is too much renewable electricity, they have to be paid more to curtail their output.  Those additional monetary costs are then added to the energy bills of their consumers.

In these circumstances, the falling cost of the renewable electricity technology is almost irrelevant.  According to Shellenberger:

“Part of the problem is that many reporters don’t understand electricity. They think of electricity as a commodity when it is, in fact, a service — like eating at a restaurant.

“The price we pay for the luxury of eating out isn’t just the cost of the ingredients most of which, like solar panels and wind turbines, has declined for decades.

“Rather, the price of services like eating out and electricity reflect the cost not only of a few ingredients but also their preparation and delivery.”

Even if the price of renewable technologies fell to zero, the cost of supplying electricity to end users would continue to rise.  Indeed, paradoxically, if the cost fell to zero, the price would spiral out of control precisely because of the impact on the wider system required to move that renewable electricity from where it is generated to where and when it is required.  In short, and in the absence of cheap and reliable storage and back-up technologies that have yet to be invented, the more renewable electricity generating technologies we deploy, the higher our electricity bills are going to rise.

This may, of course, be considered (at least among the affluent liberal classes) to be a price worth paying to reduce our carbon emissions (although there is little evidence that this is happening).  But it has potentially explosive political consequences.  As the UK government’s energy policy reviewer, Dieter Helm pointed out:

“It is not particularly difficult to set out what an efficient energy system might look like which meets the twin objectives of the climate change targets and security of supply. There would, however, remain a binding constraint: the willingness and ability to pay for it. There have to be sufficient resources available, and there has in a democracy to be a majority who are both willing to pay and willing to force the population as a whole to pay. This constraint featured prominently in the last three general elections, and it has not gone away.” (My emphasis)

Energy poverty and discontent is a growing phenomenon across Western states, as stagnating real wages leave millions of families struggling to cover the cost of basics like food and energy that have risen in price far faster than official inflation.  This has already translated into the disruptive politics of Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise of the European far right and far left parties.  In acknowledging this constraint, Helm points to the true depths of our current trilemma – we have simultaneous crises in our environment, our energy and resource base and our economy.

Thus far, “solutions” put forward to address any one arm of the trilemma – economic growth, renewable energy, hydraulic fracturing – impact negatively on the other arms; ultimately rendering the policy undeliverable.  Until we can drop our illusory narratives, grasp the full implications of the trilemma, and begin to develop policy accordingly, like the rising price of supposedly cheaper renewable electricity, things can only go from bad to worse.





Wind will never make a significant contribution to energy supplies

9 04 2018

Portrait photographer newcastleMatt Ridley. May 15, 2017. Wind turbines are neither clean nor green and they provide zero global energy. Even after 30 years of huge subsidies, it provides about zero energy. The Spectator.

The Global Wind Energy Council recently released its latest report, excitedly boasting that ‘the proliferation of wind energy into the global power market continues at a furious pace, after it was revealed that more than 54 gigawatts of clean renewable wind power was installed across the global market last year’.

You may have got the impression from announcements like that, and from the obligatory pictures of wind turbines in any BBC story or airport advert about energy, that wind power is making a big contribution to world energy today. You would be wrong. Its contribution is still, after decades — nay centuries — of development, trivial to the point of irrelevance.

Even put together, wind and photovoltaic solar are supplying less than 1 per cent of global energy demand. From the International Energy Agency’s 2016 Key Renewables Trends, we can see that wind provided 0.46 per cent of global energy consumption in 2014, and solar and tide combined provided 0.35 per cent. Remember this is total energy, not just electricity, which is less than a fifth of all final energy, the rest being the solid, gaseous, and liquid fuels that do the heavy lifting for heat, transport and industry.

[One critic suggested I should have used the BP numbers instead, which show wind achieving 1.2% in 2014 rather than 0.46%. I chose not to do so mainly because that number is arrived at by falsely exaggerating the actual output of wind farms threefold in order to take into account that wind farms do not waste two-thirds of their energy as heat; also the source is an oil company, which would have given green blobbers a excuse to dismiss it, whereas the IEA is unimpleachable But it’s still a very small number, so it makes little difference.]

Such numbers are not hard to find, but they don’t figure prominently in reports on energy derived from the unreliables lobby (solar and wind). Their trick is to hide behind the statement that close to 14 per cent of the world’s energy is renewable, with the implication that this is wind and solar. In fact the vast majority — three quarters — is biomass (mainly wood), and a very large part of that is ‘traditional biomass’; sticks and logs and dung burned by the poor in their homes to cook with. Those people need that energy, but they pay a big price in health problems caused by smoke inhalation.

Even in rich countries playing with subsidised wind and solar, a huge slug of their renewable energy comes from wood and hydro, the reliable renewables. Meanwhile, world energy demand has been growing at about 2 per cent a year for nearly 40 years. Between 2013 and 2014, again using International Energy Agency data, it grew by just under 2,000 terawatt-hours.

If wind turbines were to supply all of that growth but no more, how many would need to windmountainbe built each year? The answer is nearly 350,000, since a two-megawatt turbine can produce about 0.005 terawatt-hours per annum. That’s one-and-a-half times as many as have been built in the world since governments started pouring consumer funds into this so-called industry in the early 2000s.

At a density of, very roughly, 50 acres per megawatt, typical for wind farms, that many turbines would require a land area [half the size of] the British Isles, including Ireland. Every year. If we kept this up for 50 years, we would have covered every square mile of a land area [half] the size of Russia with wind farms. Remember, this would be just to fulfil the new demand for energy, not to displace the vast existing supply of energy from fossil fuels, which currently supply 80 per cent of global energy needs. [para corrected from original.]

Do not take refuge in the idea that wind turbines could become more efficient. There is a limit to how much energy you can extract from a moving fluid, the Betz limit, and wind turbines are already close to it. Their effectiveness (the load factor, to use the engineering term) is determined by the wind that is available, and that varies at its own sweet will from second to second, day to day, year to year.

As machines, wind turbines are pretty good already; the problem is the wind resource itself, and we cannot change that. It’s a fluctuating stream of low–density energy. Mankind stopped using it for mission-critical transport and mechanical power long ago, for sound reasons. It’s just not very good.

As for resource consumption and environmental impacts, the direct effects of wind turbines — killing birds and bats, sinking concrete foundations deep into wild lands — is bad enough. But out of sight and out of mind is the dirty pollution generated in Inner Mongolia by the mining of rare-earth metals for the magnets in the turbines. This generates toxic and radioactive waste on an epic scale, which is why the phrase ‘clean energy’ is such a sick joke and ministers should be ashamed every time it passes their lips.

It gets worse. Wind turbines, apart from the fibreglass blades, are made mostly of steel, with concrete bases. They need about 200 times as much material per unit of capacity as a modern combined cycle gas turbine. Steel is made with coal, not just to provide the heat for smelting ore, but to supply the carbon in the alloy. Cement is also often made using coal. The machinery of ‘clean’ renewables is the output of the fossil fuel economy, and largely the coal economy.

A two-megawatt wind turbine weighs about 250 tonnes, including the tower, nacelle, rotor and blades. Globally, it takes about half a tonne of coal to make a tonne of steel. Add another 25 tonnes of coal for making the cement and you’re talking 150 tonnes of coal per turbine. Now if we are to build 350,000 wind turbines a year (or a smaller number of bigger ones), just to keep up with increasing energy demand, that will require 50 million tonnes of coal a year. That’s about half the EU’s hard coal–mining output.

The point of running through these numbers is to demonstrate that it is utterly futile, on a priori grounds, even to think that wind power can make any significant contribution to world energy supply, let alone to emissions reductions, without ruining the planet. As the late David MacKay pointed out years back, the arithmetic is against such unreliable renewables.

MacKay, former chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, said in the final interview before his tragic death last year that the idea that renewable energy could power the UK is an “appalling delusion” — for this reason, that there is not enough land.