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.
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.
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.