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Renewable Energy Needs Huge Mineral Supply

By Tim Radford, Climate News Network

LONDON – Humankind could be about to exchange one kind of energy crisis for another. The switch from the finite store of fossil fuels to renewable sources could involve a huge additional demand for the world’s equally finite store of metals and minerals.

Three French CRNS scientists – Olivier Vidal and Nicholas Arndt of the University of Grenoble and Bruno Goffé of Aix-Marseille University – issue the warning in Nature Geoscience.

To match power from fossil fuels or nuclear stations, the construction of solar farms and wind turbines would gobble up 15 times more concrete, 90 times more aluminum and 50 times more iron, copper and glass.
Credit: Flickr/K Ali

They say that to match the power generated by fossil fuels or nuclear power stations, the construction of solar energy farms and wind turbines will gobble up 15 times more concrete, 90 times more aluminum and 50 times more iron, copper and glass. Right now wind and solar energy meet only about 1 percent of global demand; hydroelectricity meets about 7 percent.

The trio argue that if the contribution from wind turbines and solar energy to global energy production is to rise from the current 400 terawatt hours to 12,000 terawatt hours in 2035, and 25,000 terawatt hours in 2050, that will require 3,200 million tons of steel, 310 million tons of aluminum and 40 million tons of copper to construct state-of-the-art generating systems.

This in turn would mean an annual increase in global production of these metals of from 5 percent to 18 percent for the next 40 years, and that would be in addition to the already accelerating demand for metals of all kinds in both the developed and the developing world.

Global approach

And, they say, right now 10 percent of the world’s energy budget is spent in digging up and processing mineral resources. Unless something astounding happens, this fraction will get larger as high quality ores become harder to find, and more difficult to extract.

This presents problems for Europe, for example. Europe is where the Industrial Revolution began more than 200 years ago. Europe now consumes more than 20 percent of the metals mined globally, but European mines produce only 1.5 percent of iron and aluminum, and 6 percent  of the world’s copper.

“Humanity faces a tremendous challenge to make more rational use of the Earth’s non-renewable raw materials,” they conclude. “The energy transition to renewables can only work if all the resources are managed simultaneously, as part of a global, integral whole.”

In the same issue, Richard Herrington of the Natural History Museum in London addresses the same problem from a different perspective.

Better recycling

Nagarjuna Sagar dam in Andhra Pradesh: Hydro-electric plants devour cement and other resources.
Credit: Sumanthk, Wikimedia Commons via Climate News Network

He argues that overall, metals and minerals are not in short supply, but their uneven distribution is likely to create political problems, and the competition for supplies already presents ethical problems, both from environmental and humanitarian points of view.

Platinum for instance is vital for catalytic converters and fuel cell technologies: 80 percent of the planet’s supply comes from just two mines in South Africa. More than 30 percent of the world’s copper comes from Chile. The world’s largest zinc mine is in the Alaskan Arctic wilderness, and shipments can only be delivered between July and October, because of the sea ice.

The political risks inherent in this uneven spread of mineral riches, he reasons, were clearly demonstrated during the oil crisis of the 1970s, when Middle East oil prices went up, and western economies went plunging down. So he too argues that there should be more attention to local mineral sources, including those in Europe.

“We must acknowledge and control the complexity of giant mining projects with their demands on infrastructure and environment. We need to work hard to understand any ethical issues with the provenance of new resources.

“Better ways of recycling valuable metals from discarded electronic equipment are required,” he argues. “And geoscientists need to undertake a thorough audit of the natural occurrences of mineral deposits that will feed our economies.”

Tim Radford is a reporter for Climate News Network. Climate News Network is a news service led by four veteran British environmental reporters and broadcasters. It delivers news and commentary about climate change for free to media outlets worldwide.

Comments

By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on November 2nd, 2013

The heavier elements that you mention are pretty simple, easy to pick up and purify.  For example pure copper can be found lying in chunks above ground.

But neodymium comes from alloys that require mining and lots of energy to process.  Even more energy is required to separate lithium salts into lithium and (generally) chlorine for use in the electric cars that are the most logical use of renewable energy.  In short, the supply of materials is not insufficient, but the supply of “clean” energy to purify and utilize some of the most critical materials is mostly nonexistent.  The best example of renewable energy in such processing is the evaporation of lithium salts from brine pools using just sunlight.  But that is only one small step in the processing.

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By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on November 2nd, 2013

Correction to my previous comment, it looks like the most viable lithium salts are not made of lithium and chlorine but lithium and carbon compounds.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium_carbonate

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By dan_in_illinois
on November 2nd, 2013

“They say that to match the power generated by fossil fuels or nuclear power stations, the construction of solar energy farms and wind turbines will gobble up 15 times more concrete, 90 times more aluminum and 50 times more iron, copper and glass. Right now wind and solar energy meet only about 1 percent of global demand; hydroelectricity meets about 7 percent.”

Also, the wind turbines only work when there’s wind, although not too much, and the solar panels only work during the day and then only when it’s not cloudy.  Other than that, alternative energy is perfect.

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By Paul Lindsey (Las Cruces, NM 88011)
on November 2nd, 2013

Not to mention the already-occurring massive pollution in China from refining rare-earth minerals required for high-density permanent magnets used in wind turbines, or the amount of energy required to refine/manufacture aluminum, steel, copper and concrete. (Although I’ve recently seen an article stating that returning to Roman-style concrete would require less energy input than modern concrete, but that concrete would have to be tested and new construction standards created.)

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By Denis Frith (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 3199)
on November 2nd, 2013

The article provides sound comment on the usage of minerals in the operation of the technological systems in the infrastructure. However, it does not emphasize that the limited stock of these materials are being irreversibly used up. Recycling only extends their availability but does not affect the principle that, like oil, they are running out. It does not mention the commitment to use some of the remaining minerals and other resources for the operation and maintenance of the existing infrastructure during its limited life time.

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By WrenchMonkey
on November 3rd, 2013

The so-called “renewable” energy sources are no more sustainable than fossil fuels. They demand an industrialised civilisation with all its attendant growth and consumption of non-renewable resources.

“Renewable” energy is not the panacea that will save the world. It won’t allow us to roll along on our merry way, retaining all the accoutrements of our gluttonous, narcissistic culture.

We can’t just substitute solar or wind or anything else for oil and continue with business as usual.

“We can have electricity and a world devastated by mining, or we can have neither (and don’t give me any nonsense about solar: you’ll need copper for wiring, silicon for photovoltaics, metals and plastics for appliances, which need to be manufactured and then transported to your home, and so on. Even solar electrical energy can never be sustainable because electricity and all its accoutrements require an industrial infrastructure).”
Derrick Jensen, “Endgame”

Everyone seems to be stuck in the mindset that any actions we take to address these issues must be predicated upon the continuation of our industrialised “civilisation”. I don’t think so.

A problem cannot be solved by applying more of the same reasoning and principles that created it.

A culture and economy that perpetually demands growth and depends, for its very existence, upon the extraction and destruction of non-renewable resources cannot endure.

As far as I can see, it all shakes out about like this: Industrial civilisation is unsustainable. The existing paradigm can end only one way: the collapse of civilisation.

The landing could be made a little softer if civilisation were intentionally and rationally dismantled, but that’s not likely to happen.

Instead, the ruling class will cling to their self-proclaimed, unquestioned “right” to exploit everything and everyone, without restraint, until it’s physically impossible to do so. Then civilisation will crash, hard.

The longer we wait for civilisation to break down, or the longer we delay bringing it down ourselves, the greater the suffering and death for whatever Life survives through and after the collapse.

Seems to me nobody has a clue how bad things really are or will become. Suffice it to say it will probably be worse than anyone is expecting.

I’d suggest anyone under the age of 18 be given a crash course on how to live as a hunter-gatherer, sooner rather than later. Why wait til the last minute?

Just my opinion.

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By George Wood (Southam CV47 2SJ )
on November 4th, 2013

I dont believe that there is any carbon emissions benefits above an energy density level of 20% of wind turbines.
The cost is not worth it and the lifespan of wind turbines are only expected to be15years, after which there is significant blade deterioration.
This whole wind-turbine thing is nothing short of a massive scam!!!

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By Louis (Alamosa, CO, 81101)
on November 5th, 2013

Rhetorical question for WrenchMonkey:

Hunt what?  Gather what?  Where?

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By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on November 6th, 2013

WrenchMonkey, an interesting perspective.  My take is that the economy has done extremely well adapting to shortages in the past.  It’s only government that mucks things up mainly through price controls.  For example in the 70s we had a giant fiasco running out of refined gasoline.  That was mainly due to the government regulation of gasoline, a remnant of Nixon’s more comprehensive price controls.  I am hopeful that we learned from those mistakes but memories can be short in our democracy and people may vote for “cheap stuff” again and create shortages.

When the market is allowed to raise prices the market also provides alternatives.  Sometimes that takes a while, but the result is always worth the wait.

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By Bob Nikon (Island Park New York 11558)
on November 6th, 2013

Human beings always defy to live their lives under the conditions of nature-given. Since we acquire the brain that is so complex that we would be able to manipulate it in order to obtain the preferred way of life regardless of any nature-given conditions. We have conquered the most effective conditions to live in such a harsh climate in some particular regions on earth. Human beings can manage to inhabit anywhere around the globe. Other creatures have to adapt their DNA in order to transform their bodies to be suitable for such an environment. That can take millions of years. Why humans can settle down to live anywhere in just one generation? Because we have such a complex brain that can manipulate things around us. In order to inhabit in any region on this planet regardless the conditions of the habitats. 
      Humans build the structure to dwell in from variety of materials for their comfort and existence. These materials may have come from different sources such as the trees, elements underground, sand, stones and so on.
      All these materials require energy to operate the tools or create heat to alter them to be the finished materials in the process. Ironically, We also need energy to keep our dwelling warm in winter and cool in summer as well as household appliances to be operated. They all need energy to work for our well being. An energy allows us to choose the lifestyle that we prefer. So it becomes an important part of our lives. We cannot live on comfortably at any given time without it.
      There are two methods to obtain this energy in the form of electricity. One method is to burn fossil deposits such as crude oil, coal and convert heat into electricity. Our planet has the ample supply of fossil deposits at the present time but they will be depleted. So far, nobody can predict when that will happen. The other method is called “green energy” such as windmill, solar power and water dam along with some other green energy methods such as ocean waves, geothermal and so on. Green energy is clean and good for all lives to live naturally but all of them come with the conditions or restrictions when to yield electricity and when not being able to. Most of them can yield a minuscule amount of energy. All of them can supply the energy up to 1 percent of the total energy consumption we need. The rest is taken care by the first method. Which will carry on consuming limited natural resources. In addition, this method emits the heat and pollution into our atmosphere Which contributes to the cause of global warming.
          Ironically, we have nothing to rely on going into the future. Moreover, we increase the rate of energy consumption by increasing the population. Not only that we bring in new lives but also multiply them on every new generation. The existing ones are prone to live longer due to advanced technology. That means we consume the limited natural resources progressively to obtain the energy for the increasing numbers of population. It is obvious that these resources will be depleted one day. The crux of this matter is, what the later generations would do when they have to face the depletion. Is there anything our generation ought to do to ensure the certainty for them when we are a part of chain reactions of bringing more population into this planet. But it appears that we live our lives day by day with no plans at all. Contrarily, we have done the right thing when it comes to food. There is something that we have got it right for decades. That is why we have food enough to support the increasing numbers of population. Our earlier generations used to hunt animals for their food. They actually drove some species to extinction. At some point of time, the later generations started to realize that if we keep killing animals for their meat from the wild to support the growing population. As the time goes by we will drive these animals to extinction. That means no more meat to eat later on. The right way is to farm them by selecting the ones from the wild that litter in large numbers and use the knowledge in genetics to turn them into the way we want. We do the same thing on vegetation as well so we can ensure that we have enough food to sustain the growing population. Unfortunately, when it comes to energy consumption we have not found the right way to handle the situation. Not until now. 
      Fortunately, there is a new idea emerges on horizon. The idea to manipulate the effect of interactions between water and air driven by the most reliable and powerful forces. Thus, the outcomes will be an ample supply of electricity for us to use at no running costs. It is a complete “green energy”.
      This idea creates the apparatus that goes on pumping electricity by itself. This idea is the key to solve a lot of serious problems that we are now facing. Does it sound too good to be true?!?! Go to http://hydro-electrenergy.com to find out.

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By Bob Nikon (Island Park, NY)
on August 11th, 2014

It is a predicament where one thing is not better than the other. It is time now to turn to something brand new on alternative energy. There is a new concept that creates the different approach to alternative energy arena. We are at a threshold of a very beautiful planet filled with clean, costless and endless energy and a time to enter is at our disposal now.
  This is a concept to manipulate the power of interactions between air and water in our surroundings by comprising unique gadgets into a working system. Introducing HYDRO-ELECTRENERGY, the system that can harness the kinetic energy of airflow created by these powerful interactions. The perpetual-motioned machine that can generate electric current every minute around the clock by itself anywhere on this planet regardless the weather conditions at any given locations. Further more, there are technically no running costs because this apparatus is driven by the most powerful, reliable and costless forces in the world, the forces of gravity and buoyancy. Ironically, we utilize these two forces on our everyday living unawares of a great potential that can benefit our lives in a very big way. This concept unveils this potential and brings it out to serve our energy needs. This concept ultimately becomes a powerful tool to remove the roadblock for hydrogen production. Good things that hydrogen can do are nothing new to scientists they have discovered that decades ago but they haven’t been able to find the sensible way to produce it. So hydrogen production has hit the roadblock and died on its track, going nowhere until this day. It requires a significant amount of electric current to extract a usable amount of pure hydrogen out from water. In fact, it is too costly to use electric current from burning fossil fuels. On the other hand, free electric current from renewable technologies available today can not produce hydrogen enough to fulfill our growing demand for consumption. Thus hydrogen has become tantalizingly out of our reach since then. This concept can generate electric current to feed the household as well as to produce hydrogen by electrolyzing water. Hydrogen gas will be produced even greater amount to satisfy our needs over time because HYDRO-ELECTRENERGY can feed electric current to the electrolyzer continuously and unconditionally around the clock. Water can be from any natural sources as a raw material for the process. So this is a sensible way to produce hydrogen because there are no running costs no matter how much hydrogen is produced. Finally, roadblock for hydrogen production is removed. 
  The turnout of this path is even more festive since we are now enable to recycle water to facilitate all of our energy needs. When hydrogen is used as a fuel, it is forced to cohere with oxygen in the air forming water molecules and being released back to earth.
  Hydrogen is the only one kind of fuel that is right for humans when it comes to the energy we need from combustion. Due to its nature of being practically benign for natural elements that nurture our lives from its production to consumption. We start off by splitting water molecules for oxygen and hydrogen. Oxygen is released into the air but hydrogen is kept in pressurized tanks for heating, hot water system, cooking and more importantly, fueling our vehicles. The existing ones can be converted to be hydrogen propelled vehicles. Now that we have ample supply of free electricity and hydrogen we can transform our lives from being mainly reliant on carbon footprint to be entirely extricated from it. There will be no worries of depletion to this energy because we obtain our energy by recycling the source of energy(water), unlike fossil fuels that we consume the source of energy(fossil deposits). So there will be a depletion at some point of time, not to mention about pollution being emitted into our atmosphere as we live on.
  Additionally, we now enable to decentralize our energy structure which would eradicate problems we are facing from time to time on centralized energy that we now depend on. Because of this concept that allows us to do so. The whole thing can be scaled down to fit in a household. Finally, we can have a full control over our lives. All these will have to start with the apparatus prototype which is still a project. Please go to http://hydro-electrenergy.com to learn about this system and if you agree with the concept, please contribute small donation to the project. Remember! many hands can lift the big project off the ground, anything is possible when a lot of us congregate to do the same thing and finally we all will benefit from it.

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