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The Renewable Energy Dream

The Renewable Energy Dream

We are constantly being told by the Government, Environmentalists and the Greens that renewable energy in the form of solar and wind generation is going to alleviate climate change. They keep telling us that instead of burning fossil fuels, all we need to do is build wind and solar farms and install batteries to cover the times when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, and we will not have to worry about climate change.

This is supposedly the magical answer to GHG affected climate change.

But the reality is that if we are trying to be good environmental citizens of the earth, wind and solar generation is something that we should not be pushing.

I know that most of the proponents of renewable energy will have just had a minor heart attack reading this statement but the physical realities show that I am right.

These renewable sources of energy (solar and wind) have limitations:

E.g. The maximum rate at which the sun’s photons can be converted to electrons is about 33%. Our best solar technology is at 26% efficiency. For wind, the maximum capture is 60%. Our best machines are at 45%.

These technologies are pretty close to the top limits of possible generation even though we are being told that we can look forward to a brighter future using renewables. This means that we are close to reaching the maximum efficiency of this technology and therefore the only way to increase the output will be to build more solar or wind farms and install more batteries.

But again we need to remember that wind and solar only work when the wind blows and the sun shines. But we need energy all the time and supposedly the solution is to use batteries.

Reality, physics and chemistry show that batteries are not the answer.

For example consider the world’s biggest battery factory that Tesla built in Nevada. It would take 500 years for that factory to make enough batteries to store just one day’s worth of America’s electricity needs alone. This helps explain why wind and solar currently still supply less than 3% of the world’s energy, after 20 years and billions of dollars in subsidies.

Even forgetting about the economics when we look at the physical realities of developing renewable energy sources and the batteries to enable us to effectively use them; we need to remember that like all machines they are built using nonrenewable materials.

Some basic examples of what I mean are:

  • A single electric-car (EV) battery weighs about half a ton. Fabricating one requires digging up, moving, and processing more than 250 tons of ore somewhere on the planet.
  • Building a single 100 Megawatt wind farm, which can power 75,000 homes, requires some 30,000 tons of iron ore and 50,000 tons of concrete, as well as 900 tons of non-recyclable plastics for the huge blades. To get the same power from solar, the amount of cement, steel, and glass needed is 150% greater.
  • Then there are the other minerals needed, including elements known as rare earth minerals. With current plans, the world will need an incredible 200 to 2,000 percent increase in mining for elements such as cobalt, lithium, and dysprosium, to name just a few.

Where’s all this stuff going to come from?

Massive new mining operations.

Australia’s Institute for a Sustainable Future cautions that a global “gold” rush for energy materials will take miners into “…remote wilderness areas [that] have maintained high biodiversity simply because they haven’t yet been disturbed.”

And who is doing the mining?

Currently they’re not all union workers with union protections in fact in many jurisdictions these rare earth elements are being mined using child labour. Amnesty International has said: “The… marketing of state-of-the-art technologies are a stark contrast to the children carrying bags of rocks.”

Sixty-eight percent of the world’s cobalt, a significant part of an EV battery, comes from the Congo where the mines have no pollution controls and they employ children who die from handling this toxic material. So should we factor in these diseased kids as part of the embedded cost of driving an electric car?

The other issue in relation to this increase in mining will be the massive amounts of conventional energy required to first mine the ores, then refine the ores, process the ores into materials for building the renewable energy hardware and then the actual building of the hardware.

Wind turbines are the ultimate in embedded costs and environmental destruction. Each weighs approximately 1600 tonnes (the equivalent of 23 houses), contains 1300 tonnes of concrete, 250 tonnes of steel, 40 tonnes of iron, 20 tonnes of fiberglass, and the hard to extract rare earths neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium. Each blade weighs 36,000 Kgs and will last 15 to 20 years, at which time it must be replaced. We cannot recycle used blades so currently they are cut up and buried in landfills.

With current plans, the International Renewable Energy Agency calculates that by 2050, the disposal of worn-out solar panels will constitute over double the tonnage of all of today’s global plastic waste. Worn-out wind turbines and batteries will add millions of tons more waste. It will be a whole new environmental challenge. Conventional energy machines, like gas turbines, last twice as long.

So before we launch history’s biggest increase in mining, digging up millions of acres in pristine areas, encourage childhood labor, and create epic waste problems, we might want to reconsider our use of hydrocarbons—the fuels that make our modern world possible; and which technology is making easier to acquire and cleaner to use every day.

To put the renewable energy debate into perspective we need to look at some examples for comparison such as:

  • It costs about the same to drill one oil well as it does to build one giant wind turbine.
  • While that turbine generates the energy equivalent of about one barrel of oil per hour, the oil rig produces 10 barrels per hour.
  • It costs less than 50 cents to store a barrel of oil or its equivalent in natural gas.
  • But you need $200 worth of batteries to hold the energy contained in one oil barrel.

So the next time someone tells you that wind, solar and batteries are the magical solution for all our energy needs ask them if they have an idea of the cost… to the environment or are they just living in a dream.   

Here in New Zealand we have another option that will allow us to keep the lights on without the need to import dirty coal from Indonesia.

Instead of filling our landfills with waste we can use that waste to produce power by incineration. Given the latest technology available, there will be less harm done to the environment from using waste as a fuel than there is from importing and using coal. 

According to the Waste Hierarchy, the recovery of energy from waste is the next preferred method after recycling. Disposal to landfill is the least preferred method of waste management, yet it is the current best practice in New Zealand.

There is a place for these green technologies but we need to look beyond the myth of zero emissions and identify the true embedded environmental costs of making and replacing them to allow for an accurate analysis of the benefits in comparison to the current energy generation methods and other possible methods.

 

We must remember that the Earth will always have the final say!