By Robert Bradley Jr. -- June 8, 2021
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Mark Mills brought to light the fact that the International Energy Agency (IEA), generally regarded as the world’s most important source for energy information, recently released a 287-page report entitled, The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions.
Here are some highlights and lowlights from that IEA report.
- Transitioning from today’s energy production (coal, oil, gas, nuclear) to clean energy (wind, solar, batteries) requires minerals, lots of minerals such as lithium, graphite, nickel, and what are called, “rare-earth metals”. Demand will explode by an estimated 4,200% (lithium), 2,500% (graphite), 1,900% (nickel) and 700% (rare-earth metals). Supply and demand drive pricing. When these dramatic increases occur and with greater competition for the metals, what will happen to the price of these minerals, and hence the price of a battery-powered car? Raw material costs already account for some 50-70% of total battery costs.
- All of this mining requires a mining industry, massive transportation, refinement facilities, and infrastructure to support them that does not exist and there are no plans to build them. And to do so will cost a least hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars.
- Production of an electric car requires six times more minerals than a conventional car. An on-shore wind plant requires nine times more minerals than a natural gas-fired plant and a wind turbine will need to be replaced in an estimated 20 years. In just the past ten years, as the transition to wind and solar has begun, the minerals needed to produce a unit of energy have increased by 50%. And that effort only increased the wind and solar share of energy production by 10%.
- With greater demand for minerals, there is another long-range consideration, declining resource quality. Already we are experiencing mineral quality falling across a range of commodities. For example, the average copper ore grade in Chile declined by 30% in just the past 15 years.
- The IEA reported that on average it takes over sixteen years to move a mining operation from discovery to production.
- Environmental consequences: The new demand for minerals creates a global mining boom that will produce an enormous environmental footprint. First, it demands huge quantities of water and, coincidently, about half the known global lithium and copper sources are in water-shortage areas. Additionally, there will be extensive contamination from acid mining, contaminated drainage, and wastewater.
- The IEA points out that the mining of “energy transition minerals” will occur mainly in countries with “low governance scores”. That is, where corruption and bribery pose high-risk operations.
- Viability of access to “energy-transition-minerals”, ETM: While the top three global oil and gas producers account for less than 50% of oil and gas supply, the top three producers of key ETMs control more than 80% of global supply. But, most importantly, China controls most of that 80% and today the US isn’t even in the game.
- To contrast our position today with China, America is now 100% dependent on imports for some 17 key minerals, and, for another 29, over half of our needs are imported thereby creating tremendous vulnerability.
- The IEA report also poses a critical question on future net carbon savings. Mining, transporting, chemical processing, and refining of billions of tons of earth materials will create a new and massive carbon footprint which could conceivably create new carbon emissions in greater volume than that which is saved by driving electric cars.
- What do we do when we run out of one or more of the essential minerals to support battery energy?
- What if the cost of producing batteries for vehicles increases the cost of a vehicle out of the range of lower- and middle-class families?
- The planners would look at the Paris Global Climate Accords and conclude that the accords do nothing to address the IEA revealed shortcomings. Nations set their own goals, nothing is enforceable and there are no penalties for noncompliance. The accords also state that the 139 “developing countries” (which, according to The World Bank, includes China and India) would need assistance from “developed” countries. Wherein India promptly estimated that it would need “at least US $2.5 trillion” in aid by 2030 to achieve its emissions reduction targets.” And then there is China’s “pledge”; they will build hundreds of new coal-fired plants and continue to increase emissions of carbon dioxide at least until 2030.
- Vehicles currently account for about 30% of US carbon emissions. A single electric car battery weighing 1,000 pounds requires extracting and processing some 500,000 pounds of materials creating a huge carbon footprint. Averaged over a battery’s 7–10-year life, each mile of driving an electric car “consumes” five pounds of earth and, Americans alone, drive some 3 trillion road miles a year.
- Replacing the energy output from a single 100-MW natural gas-fired turbine, itself about the size of a residential house (producing enough electricity for 75,000 homes), requires at least 20 wind turbines, each one about the size of the Washington Monument, occupying some 10 square miles of land, requires some 30,000 tons of iron ore and 50,000 tons of concrete, as well as 900 tons of nonrecyclable plastics for the huge blades. With solar hardware, the tonnage in cement, steel, and glass is 150% greater than for wind, for the same energy output.
- Could we learn some long-range strategic planning lessons from China? In two generations, China has built 500 entire cities from scratch; moved the majority of their1.4 billion population from poverty to the middle class; initiated a global Silk Road infrastructure initiative in underdeveloped countries. By comparison, China has 40,000 kilometers of high-speed rail, the US has none; it took ten years for a bus line in San Francisco to pass its environmental review, and it took us 16 years to build the Big Dig tunnel in Boston. China’s emergence as a world leader in commerce and military preparedness is all about long-range strategic planning on a global scale.
Long-range strategic planning begins by answering a long list of questions. This IEA study goes a long way towards surfacing the critical issues that must be considered to determine a way ahead for any Green movement without just borrowing trillions of dollars to throw at the problem.
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