Some pitfalls in the road to an affordable, low-carbon energy future

I was chatting on Twitter yesterday and had another interesting discussion with one of the people with whom I regularly spar. He is a recent convert to environmental activism and, like many of his kin, has a limited science background but a reasonable amount of common sense. He was arguing that I was being obtuse when talking about measures to address the demand side of the supply-demand relationship in energy discussions. The background for this discussion was my Huffington Post blog Energy East Pipeline Fight Is Simply A Proxy War where I pointed out the importance of dealing with the demand for oil and gas in the pipeline debate. As I explained in my Huffington Post piece, and have written at this blog, until we take measures to make carbon-based energy sources more expensive (through a combination of market-based and regulatory instruments) AND address the demand for carbon-based energy sources by providing an affordable alternative, we will not have any chance to reach a carbon-neutral future.

The reason for his complaints was my insistence on talking about renewable energy options when talking about energy demand side of the relationship. You see like many of the activists involved in the debate, he views energy conservation as the primary means to address the demand side of the supply-demand relationship. In my discussions on the topic I continually have to point out that energy efficiency, while an important first step, can only take us so far. No matter how efficient we make our refrigerators, cooling a refrigerator still means using energy. It is at this point that I tend to draw blanks from the other side in my discussions on the topic. The problem is this obvious next step is seldom considered in detail in their confabs. Certainly they are all for looking to convert our energy systems to low-carbon sources but they don’t really stop to think about what that means in a practical sense. They are unrelentingly optimistic that using logic and emotion alone they can convince the world to change to low-carbon energy sources but most fail to recognize that the vast majority of the world looks at price as one of, if not the, deciding factor in energy policy discussions. If the cheapest energy source is carbon-based then, in a lot of the world, carbon-based energy will be the choice that is used.

I have tried to explain that the way to reach carbon-neutrality is to make low/no-carbon energy both less expensive AND as reliable as carbon-based energy. I point out that as Australian politicians have learned, and British politicians are learning, the general public has a limited appetite for do-gooder policies that cost them heavily in the pocket-book and show limited, or non-existent, immediate and readily apparent benefits. In Canada, Conservative operatives are almost literally salivating at the opportunity to create a conflict where the NDP and Liberals are seen to be planning to make energy more expensive and they can play the part of the brave soldiers fighting to “protect the common man” and “save money for working families”.

Now as an aside I am going to address another complaint a number of my detractors have directed my way: the fact that I don’t talk enough about energy efficiency and topics of that ilk. The reality is that the day is only so long and my knowledge-base is necessarily limited (you can’t be an expert at everything and I choose not to try and pretend otherwise). There are many hundreds of more knowledgeable people than me out there making tremendous sense on the topics of energy efficiency. As such I choose not to waste my time trying to replicate their better-informed work. I have chosen to concentrate on the area where I am most knowledgeable and where I feel I can do the most good. This brings me to my personal bugbear: rare earth metals.

As I introduced in my post On renewables and compromises Part II Rare earths in renewable technologies and address in more detail in my post: Deconstructing the 100% Fossil Fuel Free Wind, Water and Sunlight USA paper – Part II What about those pesky rare earth metals? renewable energy technologies are utterly dependent on a handful of rare earth elements (like Neodymium, Dysprosium, Lanthanum) and a few other limiting elements (like Lithium and Platinum). The second of the posts above addresses a paper by Jacobson and Delucchi which includes a breakdown of how rare earths could theoretically be parceled out to allow for the migration to a 100% fossil-fuel free future. The paper, sadly, actually demonstrates the exact opposite to be true. As I wrote in a previous post reviewing that paper:

the production of only 26 million electric vehicles would require 260,000 metric tonnes of Lithium. They [Jacobson and Delucchi] point out that at that consumption level we would exhaust the current world reserves of Lithium in less than 50 years. While 26 million electric vehicles seems like a lot that is only half of the vehicles produced in the world on a yearly basis. Under their 100% WWS USA scenario Jacobson and Delucchi talk about electrifying virtually every mode of land transportation. That would mean a lot more than 260,000 metric tonnes of Lithium a year and that is only for electric vehicles. It completely ignores any other battery (like the Tesla wall units or even rechargeable AA’s) that might be used to help store all that solar energy that is being collected during the daytime but intended for use once the sun goes down.

For the purpose of this post the critical part is the next point:

Jacobson and Delucchi point out that we can always extract Lithium from seawater; but they also point out that seawater extraction is a very energy intensive process. That energy has not been included in any of their energy budgets.

This brings me to the crux of my argument today: the process of either recycling Lithium (or any other rare earth metal) or obtaining that Lithium from seawater will make that Lithium fantastically expensive. Fantastically expensive Lithium cannot be used to make cheap affordable energy. Put another way: you cannot make low-carbon/carbon neutral energy sources more affordable if the raw materials necessary to produce the low-carbon/carbon neutral technologies are ruinously expensive.

Right now the world is relying on China (and some proposed newer facilities in Malaysia and Indonesia) to supply almost all of the rare earth metals used in renewable energy technologies. Those existing and planned facilities are woefully inadequate to supply the quantities of these materials we will need to make a serious dent in our global energy demands. Moreover, the existing facilities are leaving a legacy of environmental degradation in their wake. That legacy will affect the health of tens of thousands of people in Western China (Mongolia) and leave huge swathes of that country uninhabitable for generations to come. To follow this discussion to its obvious conclusion: we cannot affordably produce the number of windmills, solar panels, electric vehicles or battery units we need to replace our coal and natural gas-dependent energy sources without a massive increase in the available Lithium, Platinum, Neodymium, Dysprosium, Lanthanum etc… The only way to obtain these raw materials is a huge investment in rare earth mining and refining capacity in North America and Europe. We shouldn’t just concentrate on the environmental and human health dimension either. We must also consider the geopolitical considerations: right now we are relying on one supplier to keep our renewable energy future moving in the right direction. That one supplier can, and may, change their mind on how they want to proceed. They may decide to redirect those resources internally and we, as the captured customers of this monopoly, have no alternative suppliers or recourse.

Tzeporah Berman, in a piece in the National Observer, talks about the need for some honest talk and messy solutions in our goal to build a new energy infrastructure and reduce oil demand. Well getting our act together and ensuring that we have the raw resources needed to actually develop these low-carbon technologies is one of the necessary first steps in achieving those solutions. Unfortunately, to date, we have ignored this incredibly important first step. Instead politicians and activists are painting us a picture of a world full of electronic vehicles and windmills but none acknowledge that we lack the basic resources to make their picture a reality. We need to invest in the facilities to avoid these foreseeable bottlenecks in our supply of rare earth metals and critical elements. At the same time we must invest in research to allow us to eliminate or get around those bottlenecks in the first place. Until we actually take some action on this incredibly important topic we are metaphorically wandering aimlessly down a dark road oblivious to the pitfalls on our route.

This entry was posted in Leap Manifesto, Renewable Energy. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Some pitfalls in the road to an affordable, low-carbon energy future

  1. Gord Miller says:

    Blair, I have been saying this regarding water and NAFTA for years and specifically more recently in response to the Nestle issues, to mostly deaf ears of course. Water cannot be a commodity for us to keep control of it. If we lose control of the water, guess what pipelines we will be looking at next…. You got it… water to California.


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