Our Burning Planet

GUEST ESSAY

Renewable energy has a brutal problem, and no one knows how to solve it

Renewable energy has a brutal problem, and no one knows how to solve it

It is not a question as to whether there is enough energy available from the sun or wind or waves or whatever, it is a question of what is needed for the underlying engineering — the batteries, the wind farms, the solar plants, etc.

A couple of months ago I was sent a presentation by a mild-mannered scientist by the name of Dr Simon Michaux working for Geological Survey Finland. The presentation was quite dense with tables, charts and graphs, but it was clear and concise enough to be able to understand the main points. It was presented as a webinar; the audience was mainly other professional scientists. It was entirely non-political, non-ideological and with little in the way of editorial or opinion. 

The entire presentation was pinned on the following question: What quantity of minerals will be required by the alternative energy industry to replace fossil fuels before they begin to run out around 2050? This is the generally agreed date when global oil starts approaching the bottom of the barrel (excuse the pun). 

The alternative energy technologies from which he drew his source data were solar (all types), wind (onshore and offshore), batteries (multiple types including lithium and hydrogen fuel cells), hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass, nuclear and others. And his demand requirements covered everything from vehicles to maritime vessels, to trains, to planes, to residential and industrial baseload.  

The conclusion is that there is no chance that current alternative technologies will be able to do the job. The data were brutal. The minerals required to build the infrastructure and kit for these energy technologies are simply not available under the Earth’s crust or extractable in the quantities required to take on the load of existing fossil fuel ecosystems. It is not a question as to whether there is enough energy available from the sun or wind or waves or whatever, it is a question of what is needed for the underlying engineering — the batteries, the wind farms, the solar plants, etc.  

To give one stunning example, the amount of copper required by renewable technologies (if they were to replace fossil fuels by 2050) is six times our current production. This requires us not only to find new sources but also to develop more than 300 new mines in the next 25 years — which is not geologically, economically or logistically feasible. The picture for other critical base minerals required by alternative energy tech (lithium, cobalt, nickel, vanadium, etc) is equally dismal. 

Another shocker: more than 500,000 medium-size non-fossil power plants will have to be built to replace the current fossil fuel fleet by 2050. That is 10x the size of the current fleet. Again, not going to happen; the number is simply too big.

I realise that cherry-picking some of the alarming top-line conclusions may be a little disingenuous and, for those concerned about global energy sources and fossil fuels, I urge you to watch the presentation here. And keep in mind that Michaux is not waving the flag for fossil fuels here; he is fully onboard with the global consensus to find energy replacements.  

I am not an energy expert and I don’t presume to present Michaux’s word as gospel, but I have not found any real serious pushback against his numbers because his model was built bottom-up from available verified data. 

And, as someone who is hyperallergic to ideologically driven environmental misinformation (from both sides of the spectrum — the nothing-to-see-here crowd and the Earth-is-boiling crowd), his presentation brought me up short because it had the ring of truth. It was simply data, well presented. It has in fact been taken very seriously in Finland, where Michaux is part of a government effort to find solutions, and he has now been invited by governments all over the world to present these findings.  

The problem is that no one seems to know what to do about it. It turns out that this is the first report that has minerals requirements for alt energy as its central question. No one else has ever done the analysis in any depth.  

Are we being misled about a rosy future for renewable energy sources?  

Nuclear energy

This led me to look again at nuclear energy, which is the other big basket of fossil fuel competitors. The two options here are, of course, fission (available for more than 60 years) and fusion (where some interesting results were recently seen).  

Here another interesting story emerges. In the case of fission, the anti-nuclear movement, which reached an apogee in the 1970s and 1980s, was powerful enough to have stopped the industry in its tracks. R&D came to a screeching halt, nervous politicians voted down funding, many academics trod lightly and, except for the heavyweight incumbents like Areva, Rosatom, General Electric and Mitsubishi, commercial activities dried up. This has left the world with a fleet of ageing nuclear power stations, some of whose designs date back as far as the 1960s. 

In retrospect, this activist movement scored a catastrophic own goal and the entire industry has been stunted as a consequence, with many former anti-nuclear campaigners now shamefacedly admitting mea culpa.  

The good news is that the growing pressure to move away from fossil fuels (especially over the last two decades) has seen a great deal of effort expended to build lower-cost, safer, smaller, modular nuclear plants (called SMRs) from numerous companies worldwide, including nimble startups. But nuclear energy is a freighted beast, beset by sclerotic regulation, the worst of politics and the baggage of history. So things move slowly, although determinedly. And, at five to 10 years construction time per plant, it will be expensive and complicated to replace the current baseload fossil fleet.  

Finally, there is the fusion story. Fusion has long been the pot of gold at the end of the energy rainbow with the ability to generate abundant inexpensive clean energy. As the sun does, using the same physics. But building a mini-sun in a lab and finding a way to get more energy out than you have to put in, and then to harness it, control it and scale it up, has not only been challenging but we are nowhere near the end of the slog; it is widely snarked that fusion energy has been 30 years away for the last 50 years. 

The largest and most expensive of these efforts has been the multinational Iter project in France. Its design was completed in 2001, construction began in 2007 and the first fusion experiments will begin in 2035. And then it has to scale up to public usefulness. So, don’t hold your breath.  

A few weeks ago, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California reported that they had crossed a critical barrier. They had, for a short time, produced an energy-positive result under constrained laboratory conditions, using lasers. More energy in than out, a Holy Grail of sorts. The media was quick to proclaim that we had finally reached the age of abundance, but a scan of the physics commentary revealed it was peppered with caution. Success under such tightly controlled conditions is a million miles away from an applied solution and there will be many a slip betwixt this early success and the plug on your wall.  

If this all sounds a little dystopian, it is. It means we cannot wean ourselves off our addiction to fossil fuels in time to replace them when they are depleted, and alternatives are elusive at best.  

What then? Do we assume that smart minds and clever new technologies will find us an escape route in time? Or do we simply shrink our economies to fit reality and deal with the social ructions that this will unleash?  

Or maybe Michaux’s calculations are simply wrong. But don’t count on it. DM  

Steven Boykey Sidley is a professor of practice at JBS, University of Johannesburg. His new book, It’s Mine: How the Crypto Industry is Redefining Ownership, is available at the Daily Maverick shop.

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  • David Walker says:

    This is an important and sobering analysis. Which makes the need to end human population growth even more urgent. We are still adding 80 million extra people to the earth every single year. Every million fewer people we have, the fewer resources we will need from the planet. Nuclear power has to be a big part of the solution but, as we all know, in SA it is fraught with problems of ANC corruption.

  • Deon Botha-Richards says:

    I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that 2050 is the predicted end of fossil fuel supply. It’s most certainly the defined self imposed deadline for elimination of use.

    There is still an abundance of resources left in the ground. South Africa has over 400 years worth of coal in known exploited deposits. And we haven’t even started to tap into our natural gas resources.

    2050 is net zero day. A political initiative to end fossil fuel use to satisfy the “we are going to burn” crowd.

    But the challenge of available resources to achieve that is real. And the resistance to the one source of energy that uses the least natural resources is still high.

  • Colin Louw says:

    Well said Steven – nice to see you are still active – been a long time since we last interacted. It is amazing how a few nuclear accidents (If its an accident surely a bunch of people died? Nope there were none AFAIK!!) have hobbled the development of nuclear as a source of energy. Sometimes the minority fringe tend to get their way thru shouting longer and louder than the rest – but then surely it is us “the rest” who are at fault for allowing them to get their way! Of course right now we are rogered because there is no time left to create a large enough pool of power sources to replace (and in at least 2 major fossil fuel burning countries – replace future units) of fossil fuel burners.
    The solution – especially for SS Sinking ship South Africa – is pretty grim. It involves large doses of moola and that is not exactly a commodity that is lying around. So my guess is that most of the political blokes are going to bet on gas saving the day. Of course how they distribute that power is something that no one knows. If only 15 years ago we had taken a deep breath and looked seriously at nuclear without stupid 30% or even 50% part ownership giveaway.

  • Lawrence Sisitka says:

    Yes, we clearly cannot and must not bury our heads in the sand when confronted by such stark and uncomfortable facts. However it doesn’t help the author’s argument when he dismisses the proven reality of the world burning. Putting that aside for now though it does seem that there is little focus on energy demand reduction. To take an extreme example: do we really need ski slopes in the desert. And on a more prosaic level: we can design buildings that do not need either excessive heating or excessive air-conditioning. We can also condition ourselves to understand and accept that sometimes we are a bit cooler than we like and at other times a bit warmer. Actually we can condition ourselves to enjoy far simpler lives, far less dependent on energy intensive manufacturing processes churning out mountains of unnecessary ‘goods’ (where did that usage come from?). Ok, and finally finish with the ‘economic growth at all costs’ nonsense. Plenty of scope for creativity and innovative thinking, rather than ploughing on along the same deadend energy intensive furrow. Nothing like a good mixed metaphor 🤣

    • Carol Green says:

      I 100% agree with this. We use way more electricity than we need to.
      And love your mixed metaphor.

    • Simon Porteous says:

      Lawrenece, can you please show me the evidence/factual proof for your comment regarding “the proven reality of the world burning”. Also a date would be helpful. Thanks.

  • Richard Worthington says:

    Dear Mr Sidley, I am disappointed that a writer I admire has succumbed to amplifying a seriously compromised piece of work and dismayed that you “have not found any real serious pushback against his numbers…” There is plenty out there, including from people whose work is drawn upon in the Michaux study you refer to, such as by Michael Barnard in CleanTechnica on 4 July this year. See also Nafees M Ahmed at ageoftransformation who argued on 4 May: “the report is deeply flawed, based on indefensible unscientific assumptions, and totally ignores key scientific findings”. If you don’t consider these to be “real serious pushback”, perhaps you didn’t notice a paper by Michaux dated 14 February this year (available through ResearchGate) where he addresses 4 papers that have critiqued his study. This is not to say that his work is without any merit, but it certainly does not justify your statement: “that there is no chance that current alternative technologies will be able to do the job”, which is more aligned with the on-going disinformation touted by Minister Mantashe than with responsible analysis of the very real challenges of transitioning away from fossil fuels.

    • steven sidley sidley says:

      Hi Richard – yes, I did read his 4 responses to the criticism. I remain swayed by Michaux base position (he is not alone in this, as you probably are aware), but I also stated that I was not an energy expert and was not presenting Michaux as gospel. But I was presenting his case alone, and your response is appreciated.

      • Richard Worthington says:

        Thanks for the prompt response. Indeed, the total resources needed in future global energy supply scenarios is an on-going issue of contention, as are key underlying assumptions such as enduring ‘economic growth’ and the potential for materials recycling. However, in our immediate SA context, assertions that renewable energy “has a brutal problem, and no one knows how to solve it” have particular resonance. Perhaps you’re not responsible for the headline, but I’d hate to think of you as in the same camp as those inhibiting the development of renewable energy industries in South Africa; or suggesting that in our context nuclear power would be preferable. In a time of contending narratives, where simplistic generalizations may be found on all sides and our government/DMRE eschews transparent or rational planning, much less holistic analysis, to protect existing practices, you may find yourself in dubious company. (P.S. You’ve lost the Boykey in your comments name – it’s what prompted me to pick up your first novel, to my subsequent delight!)

    • Harro von Blottnitz says:

      My thoughts too, Richard – surely there’s more science on this than the essay seems to admit. And yes, there is! Michaux is pretty junior in the field it seems, with a low publications record and most of his work on other topics. Not to say he’s not onto something good here, but there’s more authoritative work. One expert worth looking at is Gavin Mudd from RMIT, Melbourne, see his book chapter on future-mineral-demand in the Routledge Handbook of the Extractive Industries and Sustainable Development. Specifically, he writes “There are sufficient resources to facilitate the global technological transformations underway, but they are coming at greater environmental and social risks which must be acknowledged and proactively managed.”

  • Michele Rivarola says:

    Sponsored by NECSA should have been added to the title. I would suggest that the learned professor leave engineering to engineers rather than quoting lonely mild mannered scientists of questionable repute to create apprehension where none is justified by true facts. Einstein did not believe in quantum physics yet here we are with 16 qbit computer chip already assembled and ready to work to perform in 1 second what the largest supercomputer cannot do in its lifetime . So let ingenuity rather than gloom be what leads us forward.

  • David Le Page says:

    I agree with the author that fusion is a most improbable solution, but on renewables, I think he is mistaken. No doubt there’s important nuance to Michaux’s arguments, but…

    Former CSIR employee Dr. Tobias Bischof-Niemz: “It’s beyond any scientific doubt that a renewables-led energy system is technically feasible, and recent technology cost developments for solar and wind have now made it economically viable too. Good news indeed for sun- and wind-rich countries like South Africa.”

    Researcher Mark Jacobson and his team conclude: “A transition requires an order of magnitude less mining and materials than the current energy infrastructure. Don’t believe claims to the contrary.”

    There’s an online debate between Michaux and Nafeez Ahmed on YouTube.

  • Simon Mayson says:

    Reduce demand! Get rid of inefficiencies in the market economy e.g. oversized heated houses and glass clad offices, geysers and bad insulation, private car use (as the switch to EVs goes forward).

    Less is more. Why is this so seldom a recommendation, when it seems to stare us in the face??

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