Currently most of the world runs on fossil fuels, and at some point in the future we will run out of coal and oil. It is therefore important to continue to develop renewable energy sources.
Wind and sun are the current favorites because they are accessible, free and renewable. But are they?
The problem is we cannot just stick an extension cord into the wind or out the window into the sunshine and light up the house. We have to capture the wind and sun, and therein lies the rub.
In case you missed it, Mark Mills (a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute) wrote a short but brutally revealing article in the Aug. 6 edition of The Wall Street Journal. I have borrowed some of his data to make the following points.
We need to replace gas-guzzling automobiles with battery power to reduce hydro carbon buildup. Makes sense. However, consider that one electric car battery weighs in at about 1,000 pounds. Producing one battery requires digging up and processing about 500,000 pounds of raw materials.
There are more than 1 billion automobiles in the world today. It would take 250 billion tons of materials to build a battery for every car, once. Currently, electric car battery life is about seven years, and then we need to dig another 250 billion tons, and again and again, forever.
Then there’s wind power. There are about 240,000 operating wind turbines in the world, producing about 4 percent of the required electricity.
When it comes to wind turbine construction, there are a lot of numbers out there. I believe this set fairly captures the story. Just one wind turbine requires 350 tons of steel, 1,200 tons of concrete, 40 tons of nonrecyclable plastic, and 2 tons of rare-earth elements. That is about 84 million tons of steel already used up. If we want wind to produce half the world’s electricity, we will need to build about 3 million more turbines. Now we are into hundreds of billions of tons of steel.
All those zeros lead us to this question: How much hydrocarbon-producing coal and oil will we burn to produce that much steel? Better take off your rose-colored glasses because there is more bad news.
Solar power requires even more cement and steel than wind turbines to produce the same amount of electricity. Additionally, production of solar panels requires large amounts of silver and indium. Mining of these metals will increase by 250 percent and 1,200 percent, respectively, over the next 20 years; and, oh-by-the-way, some day we will run out of both.
Solar panels require other “rare-earth” elements which are not currently mined in the United States. Demand for these elements is expected to rise 250-1,000 percent by 2050. Access to these metals is questionable. For example, the Republic of the Congo produces 70 percent of the world’s raw cobalt and China controls 90 percent of cobalt refining.
The Netherlands government recently sponsored a “green” study and concluded that its country’s environmental objectives would consume a major share of the global metals required. The Netherlands population is about 17 million. The world population is about 7.5 billion.
Keep in mind that one of the major objectives of the “green revolution” is to drastically reduce the release of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. Building enough wind turbines to supply half the world’s electricity would require nearly 2 billion tons of coal to produce the concrete and steel and two billion barrels of oil to make the composite blades. Also alarming is the fact that about 90 percent of the world’s solar panels are built in Asia on coal-heavy electric grids.
And what do we do when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine?
Whatever lofty goals we may set for the world in order for it to survive, they are shared by only a fraction of the countries. China and India, with a combined population of 2.7 billion, are among the worst offenders.
When I write articles, it is normally my intent to define a problem and then offer up a viable solution, but not here. This is way beyond my ability to comprehend the way ahead.
Obviously, the need to do something is pressing, but I would leave you with this thought. As one of the world’s greatest cynics when it comes to politicians, we should not be captured by the one-liner solutions.
Remember that for every complex problem there is a simple solution, and it is usually wrong. The devil is in the details.
Lt. Gen. Marvin L. Covault, U.S. Army (ret.) is the author of “Vision to Execution,” a book for leaders.