|GLACIERS IN IOWA|
By: Marvin L. Covault, Lt Gen US Army, retiredFebruary 16, 2021
At some point K-8th grade in my one-room schoolhouse in rural Iowa, my only classmate and I learned about the glaciers that crept south and covered our homeland about 300 million years ago. Conclusion: yes, there is climate change. The climate has been changing, is changing, and will continue to change on its own.
But it begs the question, is the human race causing climate to change too fast for us to survive? For purposes of discussion, assume what all the dooms-day folks are saying is true, we the people are killing our planet with too much greenhouse gas emissions. How then, do we reduce the amount of carbon released and what will we substitute to produce the power we need to survive? The last part of that question is the issue because we cannot survive with massive, continuous electrical power. We have put ourselves in that box and it won’t go away.
My intent is not to suggest a surefire solution. Impossible at this time. However, it is not too soon to begin turning over some rocks and see what crawls out. We need to take off our rose-colored glasses right now because the “green” propaganda has too many folks believing this is easy because, for example, “wind and sunshine are free”.
This is long, way long, but it is a very big subject so please bear with me.
THE BIDEN NEW GREEN DEAL: Let’s begin with his vision statement, “100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050.” In my mind, at this time, it raises more questions than answers. Is “net zero” just a sound bite or even within the art of the possible? If not, it would be good to know that now. If it is achievable it would be nice to know how many trillions of dollars it will cost and can we borrow that many trillions of dollars? If the collective nations of the world fail to buy in, what then? Is it better to go ahead now and work on half a loaf irrespective of the feasibility of ever doing the second half or does that just prolong the enviable doomsday?
PARIS GLOBAL CLIMATE ACCORDS:The Paris Accords entered into force on November 4, 2016, and has been signed by 195 countries and ratified by 190 as of January 2021. The objective is to limit greenhouse gas emissions by 50 % by 2030 and ultimately to levels that would prevent global temperatures from increasing more than 3.6°F before the end of this century. Each signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement was asked to submit a plan. The “plan” was to specify their year-by-year program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So, what happens if a nation does not submit a plan or does not achieve its objectives? Nothing, absolutely nothing.
The plans are not enforceable and there are no penalties for failure.
The Paris Climate Agreement is a glorified global PR effort. No teeth. No funding. No sanctions for failure. But the story gets worse.
Under the Paris agreement, “developed countries” such as the United States pledge to provide funding and technical support to “developing countries”, such as India, to assist with emissions reductions; wherein India promptly estimated that it would need “at least US $2.5 trillion” in aid by 2030 to achieve its emissions reduction targets.
To date, almost 75% of the nations’ pledges are insufficient to achieve the 2030 target.
And then there is China’s “pledge”. They will continue to increase emissions of carbon dioxide at least until 2030; i.e., zero reduction planning.
And the democrats could not say enough bad things about President Trump for pulling out of this Paris Accords charade. By the way, a year after pulling out, the U.S. led the world in reducing carbon emissions primarily because of fracking and natural gas production. U.S. coal production has been declining since 2007 primarily because we have been able to pump enough natural gas out of the ground to replace the coal in energy-producing plants.
QUESTION FOR PRESIDENT BIDEN: The World Bank officially categorizes 139 nations as “developing”. China is one of them! How many of the 139 will want a handout from the U.S. taxpayers to achieve their environmental goals.
Aren’t we thankful that one of Biden’s first official acts was to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords?
COAL-FIRED POWER PLANTS, WHAT’S HAPPENING IN THE US?In 2019 there were still 241 coal-powered units across the US which generated 23% of the United States electricity. Between 2010 and 2019, 290 coal-fired power plants were closed which represented 40% of the US coal-generating capacity. Additionally, more than half of U.S. coal mines have closed since 2008. Bottom line, years before the Paris Accords came into existence and before AOC’s bartending career took off, we have been ahead of the world in planning for greenhouse gas reductions.
The US Energy Information Administration reports that between 2005 and 2019, “total US electricity generation increased by almost 2% while related CO2 emissions fell by 33%”
QUESTION FOR PRESIDENT BIDEN: Now that, in a knee-jerk I’ll-show-you-trump-supporters order to shut down fracking and leasing on public lands, will there be sufficient quantities of natural gas to continue the transition from coal?
COAL-FIRED POWER PLANTS, WHAT’S HAPPENING IN CHINA AND INDIA?The world has about 10,210 coal-fired power plants; the US has less than 300. China and India combined have about 40% of the world’s population and about 50% (5,100) coal-fired power plants. That’s the bad news; the worse news is that between the two of them China and India are in the process of building 634 new coal-fired power plants by 2030. That means standing up a new coal-fired plant about every 60 days, 2021-2030.
China is also building and financing hundreds of other coal-fired power plants in countries such as Turkey, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Egypt, and Bangladesh. China accounts for roughly half the world’s coal consumption.
If we are to believe the green folks, they are focused on global change in order to save the planet which raises the following question:
QUESTION FOR PRESIDENT BIDEN: Do you have any leverage to use to get the likes of China and India on board with greenhouse gas reductions?
WIND AND SOLAR GENERATED ENERGY AND BATTERY-POWERED VEHICLES: Yes, our portfolio of non-carbon power generation needs to include wind and solar, and, yes, we need to drastically reduce carbon emissions from transportation. The problem is, there is no free lunch and the green folks never seem to get to a discussion of the down-side and unintended consequences such as, tangentially added carbon footprints, added environmental mine-fields, potential vast cost increases for increasingly scarce essential natural resources.
Here are some issues that need to be included in the equation getting to Biden’s end-state of, “100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050.”
WIND: First of all, the green folks would have us all believe that wind and sunshine are free. Well, technically yes, but harnessing them certainly is not.
There are about 240,000 operating wind turbines in the world, producing about 4% 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.
The American Wind Energy Association says it takes somewhere in the range of 200 to 230 tons of steel to make a single wind turbine. The steel tower is anchored in a platform of more than a thousand tons of concrete and steel rebar, 30 to 50 feet across and anywhere from 6 to 30 feet deep. Add to that 45 tons of nonrecyclable plastic blades and 2 tons of rare-earth elements. Then after a life-cycle of around 20 years, start over.
If we want wind to produce half the world’s electricity, we will need to build about 3 million more turbines. Three million turbines at 230 tons of steel each equals about 690 million tons of steel. To produce steel for one turbine requires about 150 tons of coking coal and about 300 tons of iron ore, all mined, transported, and probably producing hydrocarbons.
More bad news. It should be pointed out that cement is the number one carbon contributor in the world. The production of one pound of cement also produces one pound of CO2. Then there are the emissions from all the trucks, trains, ships, bulldozers, cranes, and other equipment involved in turbine construction.
We are constantly being fed unattainable projections about power production from wind turbines. Wind proponents describe capability in terms of “capacity.” That is if the turbine was fully active 24/7 it would produce X amount of power. The truth is that because of varying weather conditions, a turbine’s output averages barely a quarter of its “capacity.”
That fact brings us to another disturbing question; what do we do for power when the wind doesn’t blow? The most obvious answer is that we must maintain, at all times, a fully operational backup power source. Or do we just heat half the houses, run half the manufacturing plants, recharge half the cell phones? Because of the requirement for near 100% backup, some experts predict a wind farm’s power will actually cost around $25,000 for every home it powers.
Another downside to wind is that the turbines are so preposterously expensive that no one would dream of building one unless they were guaranteed a huge government subsidy, also known as tax dollars.
After we dig out of the earth millions of tons of raw materials, transport them, manufacture and construct the turbines all of which will likely cause huge carbon emissions, what is the net carbon reduction? Researchers believe the actual CO2 reduction is so insignificant that one large windfarm saves less in a year than is given off over the same period by a single jumbo jet flying daily between the U.S. and England.
QUESTION FOR PRESIDENT BIDEN: When are you going to have a reality check and tell the American people all of this?
SOLAR ENERGY: Good news, China already has more solar capacity than any other country in the world and is looking to increase the proportion of renewable energy in its power mix. However, the picture of power production in China is still grim, solar covers only about 5% of their needs and coal 60%. China remains the world’s leader in carbon gas emissions.
The discussion of cement/steel requirement for energy from wind is sobering. I’m sorry to report that energy from 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 is expected to increase by 250% and 1200% respectively over the next twenty years and someday we will likely run out of both.
Solar panels require other “rare-earth” elements which are not currently mined in the US. Demand for these elements is expected to rise 250-1000% by 2050. Access to these metals is questionable. For example, the Republic of the Congo produces 70% of the world’s raw cobalt and China controls 90% of cobalt refining.
As recently as 1990, the U.S. was the world’s number-one producer of minerals. Today, it is in seventh place. Even though we have 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 our needs are imported. Tremendous vulnerability.
Also, alarming is the fact that about 90% of the world’s solar panels are built in Asia on coal-heavy electric grids.
The Netherlands government recently sponsored a “Green Study” and concluded that their country’s green 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.
By the way, estimates are that by 2050, with current plans, the quantity of worn-out solar panels, much of it non-recyclable, will constitute double the tonnage of all today’s global plastic waste, along with over 3 million tons per year of unrecyclable plastics from worn-out wind turbine blades.
POWER GENERATION LABOR FORCE: Another interesting factoid not spoken about by the green folks is workers required to produce the same amount of electrical power.
That is, X amount of power generated by just one coal worker requires two workers from natural gas and 79 from solar. In the words of President Biden, “clean energy will produce millions of new jobs” is true as a stand-alone statement. But we know there is a labor cost associated with the production of any product and that cost is always passed on to the consumer.
For example, last year about 400,000 natural gas workers produced more than one-third of U.S. electric power. The same size labor force, 400,000, accounted for solar’s minuscule share of 0.9 percent.
Bottom Line: The goal of America’s energy sector should not be to create as many renewable energy jobs as possible, but rather, the economic goal should be to produce as much clean electric power as possible with the fewest number of energy workers.
When it comes to solar energy, the outrageous production-to-labor-force ratio is a sure sign of economic inefficiency.
QUESTION FOR PRESIDENT BIDEN: Does it make sense to spend billions of taxpayer dollars to artificially support an energy source that is so labor-intensive that it requires a workforce 40 times greater than that for natural gas?
BATTERY POWERED VEHICLES: The Green New Deal seeks to replace gas-guzzling vehicles with battery power to reduce hydro-carbon buildup. This is not a simple matter. Some factors impacting on this green issue:
Transportation (cars, trucks, planes, boats, trains) account for about 23% of greenhouse gas emissions. Switching to electric can make a big difference. There are about 1 billion vehicles in the world and only about 4.8 million (less than half of one percent) are electric. There are about 280 million vehicles in the U.S. also with only about half of one percent electric. The point being, we have a long way to go to reach the Paris Agreement goal of, “limiting greenhouse gas emissions by 50 % by 2030”. How are we doing? To meet the Paris Agreement, we would need to swap out 25 million combustion vehicles for electric-powered ones each year 2010-2030. In 2019 about 1.5 million new electric vehicles were added to the worldwide fleet.
What about coal-fired power plant emission reductions? With China and India bringing on a new coal-fired power plant every 6th day, 2010-2030, the Paris goal of 50% reduction will not be feasible. One electric car battery weighs in at about 1000 pounds. To produce one battery requires digging up and processing about 500,000 pounds of raw materials such as cadmium, cobalt, lead, lithium, and nickel. For example, for some of these types of materials, the end product is about one-half of one percent of the weight of the material dug out of the ground.
CO2 emissions from vehicles are not just a U.S. problem. To achieve success all nations need to be involved. To that point, there are about one billion vehicles 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 seven to ten years and then we need to dig another 250 billion tons, and again and again. Is that feasible? By the way, replacing one vehicle battery-pack costs anywhere from $1000 to $6000. In years ahead when the demand for raw materials increases exponentially, who knows what the cost might be.
This means that any significant expansion of today’s modest level of green energy will create an unprecedented increase in global mining for needed minerals and dramatically increase U.S. imports and the vulnerability of America’s energy supply chain. How long will the supply of raw materials to make vehicle batteries last? Another piece of bad news; China dominates the world’s supply of rare metals. Producing an electric vehicle contributes, on average, twice as much to global warming and uses double the amount of energy than producing a combustion engine car. This is mainly because of its lithium-ion battery. Given all that, it takes about nine years for an electric car to be “greener” than a diesel car, assuming an annual average mileage of 8100 miles.
Supply and demand: Increasingly high demand for vehicle batteries (90% of the lithium-ion battery market by 2025) and perhaps the diminishing supply of raw materials to make them, may drive up the price of electric vehicles to untenable levels.
An estimated 11 million tons of spent lithium-ion batteries will flood U.S. markets by 2025, without systems in place to handle them. Recycling lithium costs five times as much as extracting virgin material. Therefore, currently, only 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled in Europe.
To get an idea of the scale of mining for raw materials involved in replacing the world’s gasoline and diesel-fueled cars with electric vehicles we can take the example provided by Michael Kelly, Professor of Technology at the University of Cambridge. According to Professor Kelly, if all of the UK vehicle fleet is replaced with electronic vehicles, they would need the following materials: about twice the annual global production of cobalt; three-quarters of the world’s production of lithium carbonate; nearly the entire world production of neodymium; and more than half the world’s production of copper in 2018. And this is just for the UK.
Professor Kelly estimates that if we want the whole world to be transported by electric vehicles, the vast increases in the demand for the raw materials listed above would go far beyond known reserves. The environmental and social impact of vastly-expanded mining for these materials, some of which are highly toxic when mined, transported, and processed, are inestimable. Will we be fighting wars over mining rights for raw materials?
Another question: how much power does it take on a continuous basis to recharge the batteries in 1 billion vehicles?
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS:Disclaimer: There are a lot of numbers in this piece and I’m certain they are not all absolutely correct. There is a load of conflicting information to draw from on this subject. My intent was not to ensure every number would fact-check but to build the best possible picture of where we are, where we say we want to go and the likelihood of that being within the art of the possible. There is also some personal math at arriving at some of the numbers. My apologies if I miscounted all the zeros. How many of the 195 signatories to the Paris Accords have the resources to do wind/solar/electric vehicles. I’m saying very few and the answer could be none of them. How many trillions of dollars can we continue to borrow? Will we always be able to borrow another trillion? No. When will that day occur? Perhaps it is long before we can achieve our CO2 reduction goals. No matter how many wind turbines and solar panels we build for the world, there will always be the need for substantial on-call backup around the world for when the sun doesn’t shine and/or the wind doesn’t blow. Right now, battery backup would fall woefully short and may never be a feasible alternative. The U.S. is successfully converting coal-fired production to clean-burning natural gas because we have the greatest supply of natural gas in the world which makes our backup doable, albeit very expensive. What do the nations that have zero natural gas do?
I am a proponent for wind, solar, electric vehicles and whatever science can come up with to produce power. What I am not for is false hope. I get frustrated with the “well, let’s get on with it and just hope for the best” crowd.
Hope is not a process. False hope is demoralizing and destructive.Our environment and the future of this planet are too important to be toyed with by political sound bites and unfathomable green fantasies. Viable long-range strategic planning begins at the end, that is, with a definition of the end-state. In planning jargon, end-state is the “where” of the who-what-when-where-why-and how questions; “Where” we want to go to prosper or must go to survive. Having done that, there must be a quiet period of contemplation when the powers that be look seriously at the problem, do some back-of-the-envelope work, and come to some conclusions about the viability of the end-state vs hallucination. Nuclear power plants: France, generates over 70% of its electricity from nuclear reactors, the highest percentage in the world. By contrast, the U.S. generates only about 20% of our electricity from 94 nuclear reactors. Why should we do more? A nuclear plant’s total operating expenses are a third less than that of gas turbine and fossil fuel plants and it is clean energy. The U.S. has not brought a new nuclear plant online for over 30 years. Two new nuclear units in Georgia are due to begin operating in 2021 and 2022; their approval process began in 2004. Snail-paced government bureaucracies and environmentalists-generated delays in the courts are the overriding reasons why we don’t have more. The environmentalists tie-up nuclear construction in the courts for years and years. The environmentalists can’t have it both ways, if they don’t want millions of tons of CO2 clogging up the atmosphere then they need to give a little on alternate power production capabilities.
Waste management has over 6000 of its 18,000 garbage collection trucks running on natural gas. The gas they use comes from the decomposition of trash in landfills and which has been turned into pipeline-quality natural gas. Great work by WM. There are about 130 million trucks in the U.S. and around 400 million worldwide. Why isn’t there an initiative to transition truck power over a period of years to natural gas which has a much lower carbon footprint?
President Biden, please stop, damn it, just stop messing with U.S. energy independence. Until Biden shut down drilling on public lands, the U.S. has been the world’s largest producer of natural gas.
Prediction: The Paris Climate Accord’s goals will not be met for two reasons. Most of the countries can neither afford the infrastructure nor the import of the minerals necessary to make it happen. That leaves it up to the U.S. to bankroll saving the planet and we do not now have nor will we have in the future the wherewithal to do that.
I will leave you with this thought. As an out-spoken cynic when it comes to politicians, I believe we should not be captured by the one-liner political solutions. Remember that old saying, “For every complex problem there is a simple solution, and it is usually wrong”. The devil is in the details; see above.
Marvin L. Covault, Lt Gen US Army, retired, is the author of VISION TO EXECUTION, a book for leaders, a columnist for THE PILOT, a national award-winning local newspaper in Southern Pines, NC and the author of a blog, WeThePeopleSpeaking.com.
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