As policymakers have shifted focus from pandemic challenges to economic recovery, infrastructure plans are once more being actively discussed, including those relating to energy.
Green energy advocates are doubling down on pressure to continue, or even increase, the use of wind, solar power, and electric cars.
Left out of the discussion is any serious consideration of the broad environmental and supply-chain implications of renewable energy.
As I explored in a previous paper, “The New Energy Economy: An Exercise in Magical Thinking,” many enthusiasts believe things that are not possible when it comes to the physics of fueling society, not least the magical belief that “clean-tech” energy can echo the velocity of the progress of digital technologies. It cannot.
This paper turns to a different reality: all energy-producing machinery must be fabricated from materials extracted from the earth.
No energy system, in short, is actually “renewable,” since all machines require the continual mining and processing of millions of tons of primary materials and the disposal of hardware that inevitably wears out.
Compared with hydrocarbons, green machines entail, on average, a 10-fold increase in the quantities of materials extracted and processed to produce the same amount of energy.
This means that any significant expansion of today’s modest level of green energy—currently less than 4% of the country’s total consumption (versus 56% from oil and gas)—will create an unprecedented increase in global mining for needed minerals, radically exacerbate existing environmental and labor challenges in emerging markets (where many mines are located), and dramatically increase U.S. imports and the vulnerability of America’s energy supply chain.
As recently as 1990, the U.S. was the world’s number-one producer of minerals. Today, it is in seventh place.
Even though the nation has vast mineral reserves worth trillions of dollars, America is now 100% dependent on imports for some 17 key minerals, and, for another 29, over half of domestic needs are imported.
Among the material realities of green energy:
- Building wind turbines and solar panels to generate electricity, as well as batteries to fuel electric vehicles, requires, on average, more than 10 times the quantity of materials, compared with building machines using hydrocarbons to deliver the same amount of energy to society.
- A single electric car contains more cobalt than 1,000 smartphone batteries; the blades on a single wind turbine have more plastic than five million smartphones; a solar array that can power one data center uses more glass than 50 million phones.
- Replacing hydrocarbons with green machines under current plans—never mind aspirations for far greater expansion—will vastly increase the mining of various critical minerals around the world. For example, a single electric car battery weighing 1,000 pounds requires extracting and processing some 500,000 pounds of materials. Averaged over a battery’s life, each mile of driving an electric car “consumes” five pounds of earth. Using an internal combustion engine consumes about 0.2 pounds of liquids per mile.
- Oil, natural gas, and coal are needed to produce the concrete, steel, plastics, and purified minerals used to build green machines. The energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil is used in the processes to fabricate a single battery that can store the equivalent of one barrel of oil.
- By 2050, with current plans, the quantity of worn-out solar panels—much of it nonrecyclable—will constitute double the tonnage of all today’s global plastic waste, along with over three million tons per year of unrecyclable plastics from worn-out wind turbine blades. By 2030, more than 10 million tons per year of batteries will become garbage.
Read rest at Manhattan Institute