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Current Technological Constraints Will Stop The Clean Energy Transition – OpEd

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Approximately 84% of global electricity derives from oil, natural gas, and coal. The International Energy Agency (IEA) released a sobering report on the mining and infrastructure requirements needed for decarbonization and/or net-zero to take shape. Mining to move away from hydrocarbons will require 4,200% more lithium, 2,500% more graphite, 1,900% more nickel, and at least 700% more rare earth metals and minerals. 

For example, an offshore wind turbine requires a staggering 63,000 pounds of copper. Currently, China, Russia, the Congo, and lithium triangle in South America are supplying the components to build solar panels, wind turbines, battery storage systems for homes and grids; and electric vehicles (EVs). America is not providing the rare earth minerals and metals needed, because of political backlash and technological constraints.

The IEA report adds the world doesn’t have the mining capacity, basic infrastructure, the funds, technology, or plans to “build the necessary mining and refineries.” Attempts to move this transition forward by the Biden administration, EU, UN, and western environmentalists rarely considers the geopolitical, environmental, economic challenges and social disaster, large-scale mining operations have on countries and continents. We do not have the technology to mitigate destroying large portions of the earth mining for rare earth minerals and metals.

Energy density – defined as the “amount of energy stored in a given system, substance, region of space per unit volume” – is the main reason why fossil fuels will not be replaced in the near future by renewables, EVs, storage systems, and grids. The IEA tells us why

“A typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car, an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired power plant. Since 2010 the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation capacity has increased by 50% as the share of renewables has risen.” 

Wind and solar only make up a “10% share of the world’s electricity.” Solar like wind requires millions of ton of minerals and metals, energy storage lithium needs are huge, and upgrading/building new electrical grids take decades to build and untold trillions in costs. A better solution to lower emissions is using technologically sound zero-carbon nuclear, or low-emitting natural gas-fired power plants over renewables for electricity since industrial wind and solar farms:

“Require 300 to 400 times more land than nuclear or natural gas plants, and 100% renewables (for the U.S.) would increase land used for energy from 0.5% today to 25-50%.”

Because of the energy density issue a 200-megawatt wind farm likely needs 19 square miles of turbines whereas a natural-gas fired power plant fits onto one city block. Technological constraints dictate solar panels and wind turbines lack the energy density vitally needed to replace fossil fuels and nuclear. 

Eliminating all fossil fuels and nuclear in America before accounting for the environmental destruction for mining to make renewables function would need the land area “equivalent to Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma combined.” 

Intermittency of renewables is equally bad for electricity and out-of-control prices in places such as California on top of technological issues. Economically storing energy to electricity at grid-scale renders solar and wind farms technologically unable to compete against fossil fuels and nuclear. Physics and economics dictate utility-scale storage systems are a trivial part of electrical grids delivering electricity to consumers and ratepayers. Hydrogen is also unrealistic.

According to the National Renewable Laboratory, “converting the (U.S.) grid to run on renewables will also require doubling the amount of high-voltage transmission capacity.” The U.S. has approximately 240,000 miles of high-transmission lines; renewable conversion “means adding enough high-voltage transmission lines to circle the earth about ten times.” Then add wind turbines and solar panels generally need repairs and upgrades after 2-10 years of use, and we’re dealing with an obsolete technology.

Neither amounts to reliable power sources while still necessitating more steel, concrete, and copper than fossil fuels or nuclear. Yet 90 global central banks and the Supervisors Network for Greening the Financial Systems are meeting in June to address climate change and clean energy. 

Then the IEA promotes these conferences by recently stating “no new fossil fuel exploration is required,” and lists policies such as phasing out sales of internal combustion engines and bans on hydrocarbons without consulting their recent report on the unplanned amounts of mining and infrastructure needed for the clean energy transition. The IEA is speaking out of both sides of their energy-mouths, which causes countries like Spain to believe their rhetoric and vote in laws that outlaw new exploration and production permits for fossil fuels.

Whether you believe in clean energy transitions, net-zero goals, decarbonization, climate change or global warming none of these governmental agencies, central banks, western-aligned countries or their environmental allies have any plan or discussion in place for how renewables, EVs, electrical grids or battery storage systems will replace the over 6,000 daily products that come from a barrel of crude oil. 

Ironically, the above-mentioned products and environmental sloganeering cannot function without a barrel of crude oil. Nowhere soon, or likely this century are we ridding ourselves of crude oil, petroleum, natural gas, coal, or nuclear. Under current technological scenarios it simply isn’t possible.

Wind, solar, EVs, utility-scale storage does not run unless they are backstopped by massive and endless taxpayer subsidies. Technological issues aside, renewables, EVs and storage systems would disappear without taxpayer monies. Fossil fuels and nuclear can have their subsides ended and they still endure – the unreliable nature of the entire clean energy transition forces governments to pay these so-called industries year-after-year without an end date in-sight. The money is staggering for unconventional energy.

End all subsides for solar panels, wind turbines, EVs, and energy storage systems and they will either flourish or perish the way of the horse and buggy. For now, science, engineering, land-use, raw materials, intermittency via natural limits, grid blackouts, outrageously expensive baseload electricity, unreliable output, geopolitical nightmare over allocation of vast resources, uncontrolled mining, and low-intensity energy density should give pause to a green dream or a clean energy present or future.

Todd Royal

Todd Royal, M.P.P. is the Managing Partner for Energy development, Oil & Gas, and Renewables for Ascendance Strategies, a global threat assessment and political consulting firm that is based in Los Angeles, California

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