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Renewables: not enough minerals, energy, time or clean and green

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Preface. What follows is a section of a chapter on manufacturing from my new book “Wood World” about the rare minerals used to make solar, wind, and the universe that makes them possible: computers, electric grid, and so on.


Since renewables depend on fossil fuels entirely for every step of their life cycle, I call them Rebuildables. The showstoppers keeping them from replacing fossil fuels are that they can’t substitute for fossils in either transportation (explained in When Trucks Stop Running), or in manufacturing, because they can’t generate the high heat needed to smelt and forge metals, ceramics, solar cells, and the other components they’re made of. Without transportation and manufacturing, they can’t make themselves no matter how much electricity they make. And given their fossil-dependent life cycle, their EROI — energy return is probably negative, yet another reason they can’t replace themselves with their own power.


In addition, there aren’t enough rare earth metals, platinum group metals, steel, copper, and so on to scale them up to replace fossil fuels.


Just look at the materials to make a 2 MW wind turbine. To generate just half of U.S. electricity with wind would require 1,095,000 2 MW wind turbines (Friedemann 2015), each of them requiring 1,671 tons of material, including 1300 tons concrete, 295 tons steel, 48 tons iron, 24 tons fiberglass, 4 tons copper, and Chinese rare earth metals 0.4 tons of neodymium and .065 tons (Guezuraga 2012, USGS 2011).  Then rinse and repeat every 20 years with 3.7 trillion pounds of materials.


Add billions more tons of materials to the rebuildable power shopping list for transmission, power plants, hundreds of square miles of backup utility-scale batteries, and then replace them in 20-25 years.


Using fossil energy every step and releasing a lot of CO2, since mining consumes 10% of world energy (TWC 2020).


If you can get these minerals that is. By mid-century many minerals and metals needed for high-tech could be running short , including stainless steel, copper, gallium, germanium, indium, antimony, tin, lead, gold, zinc, strontium, silver, nickel, tungsten, bismuth, boron, fluorite, manganese, selenium, and more (Pitron 2020 Appendix 14, Sverdrup 2019, Kerr 2012 and 2014, Frondel 2006, Barnhart 2013, Bardi 2014, Veronese 2015).


Computers are made of 60 minerals, many quite rare with no substitutable element (EC 2017, NRC 2008, Graedel 2015). Fortunately the abacus can be made entirely with renewable wood.


Bardi (2014) wrote “The limits to mineral extraction are not limits of quantity; they are limits of energy. Extracting minerals takes energy, and the more dispersed the minerals are, the more energy is needed. Today, humankind doesn’t produce sufficient amounts of energy to mine sources other than conventional ores, and probably never will. But long before they “run out”, if oil peaks, then game over, fossil fuel resources are necessary for the extraction of almost everything else, and the easy high-grade ores have been mined, leaving crummy ore and expensive declining fossils left to extract it.”


We’re out of time. It would take 15 years to ramp up rare earth mining to prevent China from controlling most of these 17 metals (GAO 2010). Though all China has to do is drop the price of a metal to drive a mine out of business.


Not a problem many say. We’ll recycle. But some elements are impossible to pry out of composite materials and alloys (Bloodworth 2014, Hageluken 2012). The cost to recover most rare metals exceeds their value. Recycling is time-consuming and uses toxic chemicals to separate them out. Of the 60 most used industrial metals, 34 recycled less than 1% of the time, and another eight less than half the time (UNEP 2011).


Solar panels don’t last forever. Ninety percent of solar panels are going into the landfill or are sent to Europe. They are not being recycled in the U.S. because it costs more, isn’t required and is expensive to dissemble, etch, and melt them to remove lead, cadmium, copper, gallium, aluminum, glass, and silicon solar cells.


While some parts of a wind turbine can be recycled, 720,000 tons of blade material are expected to end up in landfills over the next 20 years, especially the up to 300-foot-long blades made of materials not worth salvaging: resin and fiberglass (Stella 2019).


And it is not just solar, wind, nuclear, and other alternatives that use rare metals. The entire universe of green energy depends on dozens of metals (i.e. rare earth, platinum) as alloys in steel, electronics, computers, the power grid, phones, wind turbines, magnets, photovoltaic cells, electric motors, satellites, semi-conductors, telecommunications, fuel cells, batteries, lasers, fiber optics, catalysts, aluminum alloys, integrated circuits, GPS navigation, and much more.


We are running out of time. China produces 90% of rare earth metals, and nearly all of dozens of other metals, plus owns part of all of mining companies around the world.  It’s as if Saudi Arabia bought most of the world’s oil fields.


The Chinese now control the entire manufacturing chain from mining to metals to making missiles, components used in defense systems, communications, computers and more. This is driving calls in the U.S. and Europe to open their own rare metal mines lest a missile using Chinese parts be programmed to fail in war.


Why compete? Let China mine for essential minerals. Mining and ore processing are the second most polluting industry on earth, spewing out acid rain and heavy metals onto land, water, and air (PEBI 2016). One fifth of China’s arable land is polluted from mining and industry (Chin 2014).  If their high-technology parts are booby-trapped to prevent war, all the better.  Why waste rapidly declining oil on wars?


Green energy is anything but clean and green, and quite a Pyrrhic victory for China!


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