It has often been remarked that in our [insert pejorative adjective here] pursuit of Net Zero, we are attempting to replace an energy system that is fossil-fuel intensive with one that is material intensive. A recent IEA report has this as one of its subheadings:

The shift from a fuel-intensive to a material-intensive energy system

Wherein it notes:

A typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired plant of the same capacity.

IEA, op. cit.

Their boss may not know much about energy, but perhaps some of his minions actually have studied the matter. Because the energy density of wind is so low, a lot of equipment is required to extract useful amounts of power. That equipment has a large mass and covers a large area; it has to be widely spaced so that wake effects and blocking do not make matters even worse. So much so obvious, although apparently not to the important people, those whose responsibility it is to decide what is a good energy system and what is not.

I have been looking into just how materials intensive wind power is for some time. Estimates vary, of course. The following table shows estimates of metals usage per MW, made by the World Bank:

But it is not merely metals – wind turbines require a surprising quantity of runny stuff, too.

The snip shows the quantity of fluids and gases in a single turbine in Hornsea 3. Source: Orsted via the Planning Inspectorate:

That’s each of 240-300 turbines supplying 2.4GW nominal in toto. Multiplying everything up, you start to grasp the scale of the materials requirement for our brave new Net Zero world. None of this includes the concrete, of course. And we know of course that the mining and refining and transportation and manufacturing will be achieved using fossil-fuel power: the fruit of wind turbines is sterile; it is incapable of producing more wind turbines.

The following two images show what you might call showstopping data from the strangely conflicted IEA report aforementioned. The first compares the mineral intensity of electric vehicles with plebeian vehicles and the mineral intensity of clawing essentially nothing out of the atmosphere with burning stuff:

The second shows the required growth in minerals required to reach the “SDS” scenario (Sustainable Development Scenario; Paris agreement compliant levels of carbon dioxide cuts). The factors involved are mind-boggling, I’m sure you’d agree.

A week ago [about Dec 2] Jo Nova wrote about the way expensive energy prices are driving manufacturers of wind turbines and electric cars into the arms of our friends the Chinese communists and their coal-powered (ahem) dystopia. The European solar panel manufacturers died a long time ago (it’s so much cheaper to build solar panels when you don’t have to pay the workers, eh Winnie?).

In comments below that article, tonyb tipped me off to a Blackrock document on the materials intensity of wind power:

Trn to page 16 of this report (worth reading it in full) for a fascinating analysis of the amount of materials needed to build enough wind turbines to produce the wind generated equivalent output of a gas fired power station

The image he referred to is this:

It would certainly frighten all but the most ardent Net Zero fan. The attribution to the image led me further down the rabbit hole, to Issues in Science and Technology from which its numbers are drawn. That takes us to an article called “The Hard Math of Minerals” by Mark P. Mills of Northwestern University/ Manhattan Institute. Mills quotes the eminently quotable Feynman twice: the second time thusly:

If Feynman were alive today, one suspects he would repeat another of his favored aphorisms: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Mills, op. cit.

The Mills essay says nothing that a sceptic would be unaware of, but it lays out the sceptic’s case in such a clear and cogent manner that I wish all Net Zero politicians (isn’t that all of them?) could be made to read it.

Mills begins with the material intensity of wind power – describing in words what Blackrock converted into an image. From there he moves on to the need to upgrade the grid and add on battery storage. The materials requirement necessitates a vast increase in mining – which, as we have already noted, will be done with diesel vehicles. He points out the poor grade of the minerals in question – to the layman, at least. 1%? 0.5%? Ask a punter how much useful metal there is in a typical ore and you would probably get a different answer.

Anyway, the requirement for metals is going to have to go through the roof. The demand might exceed the known reserves of some metals (not as terrifying as it might seem: reserves are not the same as the extractable resource). Studies show that the Net Zero pathway is impossible: we can’t open enough mines (in the West, at least).

Next Mills notes that our plans rely on a continuous erosion of the prices of batteries etc – and if learning by doing is key, that will occur. But he wonders whether the increase in demand might mean that the required materials will increase in cost sufficiently to overpower the expected savings.

There is, in short, no escaping the fact that the astonishing scale of global materials production needed for proposed energy transition plans will almost certainly place severe limits on aspirations for expanding the use of wind, solar, and battery systems. But even before those limits are reached, the pursuit of a materials-heavy energy infrastructure will cause economic impacts that ripple beyond energy markets, inflating the cost of nonenergy uses for the same minerals in computers, conventional manufacturing equipment, everyday consumer appliances, and more.

Mills, op. cit.

China has cornered the market in rare earths, etc: yes, we have been hoist by our own petard. The final conclusion? Something that many of us have been saying for quite a little time:

Nuclear fission offers a potential hundredfold reduction in material intensity over combustion, and a thousandfold reduction over solar and wind.

Mills, op. cit.

Yes. Dat nuclear. It’s the good stuff. And we know that the alarmists aren’t really all that scared of climate change until they embrace it.

Final Yell Into the Abyss

The Blackrock report says this about lithium:

There are some bright spots near-term in the Mining space – lithium, for example, continues to experience a significant imbalance of supply versus demand, which has resulted in very strong upward price moves in the last twelve months.

Blackrock, op. cit.

Proving that they love us just as much as we love them.

18 Comments

  1. Click to access 42_2021.pdf

    Published August 2021. Even if Simon Michaux is only half-right in his estimates for requirements, we cannot meet the anticipated demand with known resource deposits. There may not be enough existing mineable deposits in any case – without insanely expensive, intensive, world-wide exploration campaigns starting last year, we cannot know. And yes, I’m using the concept “resource” in its’ proper context.

    I have read that Michaux addressed the UK House of Lords on exactly this issue. According to the report I read on this, the HoL politely told him to run along. The most cogent point from Michaux’s reference report is that based on 2019 production rates, the “high tech” mineral requirements are hopeless to meet. Germanium, for example, will take about 4000 years to be met. It’s blindingly obvious that either the technologies will have to change to as yet unfathomed modes, or demand will be squelched back to 15th century levels.

    Perhaps Alan Kendall may care to comment on Michaux’ paper. Myself and colleagues have pored over it for months now and find it carefully credible.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Ian, I have not read Michaux’s report yet, but have heard rumours of it! This seems a good time to rectify the situation, so thanks for the reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A must-read article, for politicians and the public alike.

    When is the penny going to drop? When are those in charge going to wake up?

    Maybe we should all send a link to our MPs (I could stretch it a bit and send it to one Tim Farron MP, who is busy campaigning against 500 jobs in a coal mine in the misguided belief that there are lots of “green” jobs to be had.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello JIT,

    We should not forget the work of professor Mike Kelly who, during his GWPF lecture in 2019, pointed out (for various key performance indicators such as energy density and energy return on investment) just how poor current renewable energy systems are:-

    Click to access KellyWeb.pdf

    Regards,
    John.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s interesting that low speed turbines use more kg/mw. I’m assuming speed refers to rpm rather than the tips of the blades. This would mean that more efficient bigger turbines would likely be the low speed kind that need more kg/mw.

    Like

  6. Crikey! Just started reading Michaux and see that the report is 1000 pages long. I’m hoping that most of this is appendices. But he seems to be a master of understatement, so I’m liking his style already. This is from the (rather extensive) abstract:

    Current expectations are that global industrial businesses will replace a complex industrial energy ecosystem that took more than a century to build. The current system was built with the support of the highest calorifically dense source of energy the world has ever known (oil), in cheap abundant quantities, with easily available credit, and seemingly unlimited mineral resources. The replacement needs to be done at a time when there is comparatively very expensive energy, a fragile finance system saturated in debt, not enough minerals, and an unprecedented world population, embedded in a deteriorating natural environment. Most challenging of all, this has to be done within a few decades. It is the author’s opinion, based on the new calculations presented here, that this will likely not go fully to [sic] as planned.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. An Ode to Energy:

    It don’t
    mean a thing
    if it ain’t got
    that schwing. Energy
    is the source of life, gets
    you into (and out of) strife.

    Fossil fuels,
    releasing us
    from penury to
    unprecedented plenitude,
    Prometheus well knew it.
    (Intermittent tech can’t do it.)

    Energy is now under threat,
    carbon, basis of life,
    by photo-synthesis
    from plant leaves to us,
    that life-force-schwing,
    is being denied
    the plants
    (and us.)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It not possible but if i was
    How many wind farms woud it take to produce ONE wind mill. Forty? The point is the energy required will grow exponentially. Net zero people need to realize that. Also why the funny design of windmills. The farmer of the usa and the dutch use windmills and as far as I knowthey do not nearlly use as much other materials as our current foolish designs. The Dutch use a lot of wood and the farm ones in the us use mostly metal.

    https://www.nps.gov/articles/windmills.htm – Us Windmills

    https://www.discoverholland.com/best-of-holland/16/dutch-windmills – Dutch Windmills

    Both could turn water turbines and make electricity as they can be and are are used to pump water.

    Like

  9. What on Earth are those charts that seemingly list the amounts of raw materials required to build one generation of wind turbines, the annual production of that material and from these derive the time period required to produce the turbines. This is utter, utter rubbish. It breaks all the rules of resource economics (of which I know only the bare basics) and makes no distinction between resources and reserves. The figures offered for annual production are clearly reserves which without further exploration and assessment decrease over time. Furthermore, the amount produced clearly is closely related to the amount that can be sold to buyers at a reasonable profit, this may be 100% of that produced, but it could be considerably lower, the difference being stockpiled. So we don’t really understand the figures in the annual production column. Especially when we don’t have figures for quantities of the material that can be used from recycling or quantities of the material already earmarked for producing goods other than turbines.

    Then there is the question of the extremely large number of years seemingly required to provide the stock of specific materials needed to produce all those turbines – in some cases many thousands of years. This implies an ability to produce the equivalent of a near constant amount of the product over those long periods of time- most unlikely. Or that other, more pressing demands, on that material might not arrive during that long time-period.

    No mention of finding alternatives, so that scarce materials might be substituted.

    I strongly suspect that if we tried the same exercise at the beginning of the 20th century with regard to the materials needed to provide every adult American with a car, the material requirements probably looked equally impossible. Yet we’re met, over and over.

    When I taught my Earth Resources module at UEA the most difficult subject I had to learn and convey to my students was the topic of resource economics. I gained considerable respect for those I had met earlier in my working life who had put the economic packages together so enabling company managers to make informed decisions. Mineral economics and related topics constitute a distinct speciality that is taught at universities and graduates are much prized.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Alan, thank you for being the sceptics’ sceptic, sceptical even of things that sceptics say and write. A useful and important corrective. For anyone interested in a quick explanation of the subject you mention, they could do worse than check out Wikipedia:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_resource_economics

    Still, it isn’t unreasonable at all, IMO, to point out that net zero (as per the climate alarmist demands set out in the COPs and elsewhere) almost certainly requires the development and roll-out of renewable energy technology at a rate that is almost certainly unfeasible, whatever natural resource economics might or might not tell us. Few here would probably argue against the likelihood of such technologies improving over time, though whether they can become cheaper is an issue that is almost certainly less straightforward (see, for instance, Andrew Montford’s report today which I have just posted as a comment on Cloud Cuckoo Land, about wind farms not getting any cheaper).

    It may be that technological improvements can reduce the scale of the materials required for renewables, but the sheer scale of the roll-out required globally if the targets are to be met, and the environmental damage that will be caused by mining for increasingly rare materials, should result in less optimistic pronouncements and more caution on the part of those pushing this agenda, IMO.

    Like

  11. I was hoping Alan would comment.

    The issue is about Resources vs Reserves vs estimates of future requirements. What the Michaux paper has done is not so much to confuse them but to try and separate known Resource/Reserve measures from 2019 to anticipated requirements for Net Zero. Myself and colleagues have pored over this attempt from Michaux seemingly forever and found value in it. We know it can’t be completely correct since future requirements can only be estimates and Resource/Reserve assessments world-wide are variable in reliability. Michaux recognises that latter point. as do we all.

    My initial comment pointed out that even if Michaux is only halfway there, the requirements for Net Zero cannot be met with known deposits (Resources) as of 2019, let alone Reserves (ie. those Resources currently assessed with sensible economic mine plans). So either the technologies have to change in as yet unfathomed ways or demand is driven down to close to penury. Alan more or less simply repeated that point.

    Resources to try and meet projected requirements will need to be found and assessed. The scale required is beyond enormous for any scenario yet attempted world wide. For Alan’s benefit, myself and colleagues are as involved as we can be in analysing the projects requiring DD financing – Li, Cu, Ni etc – yet these are just tiny pinpricks in what is expected. (We have no intention of intensifying our efforts, we would rather retire, I think). Michaux’s report here is a better attempt at examining the situation than partisan efforts from (eg.) the IEA; it’s also a good jumping-off point for detailed analysis of specific minerals wherein the accuracy or otherwise of assessments are genuinely tested. If there are better attempts than Michaux’s on the same scale, we would be most interested.

    The volumes of exploration and mining that are required to provide critical mineral resource for Net Zero are so intrusively high that we suspect environmental resistance will dampen them to a small fraction of what is needed. That’s already happening in any case.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Alan’s comment is very much valued and of course he is right about reserves versus resource. However, I think the charts serve a valuable purpose for two reasons.
    The first is they show the huge resource requirements associated with replacing our current energy systems with those associated with net zero. There are principally two technologies (excluding nuclear which faces very significant opposition) – wind and solar photo-voltaics. Both are low energy density, high entropy systems that require very significant resources. This is a point constantly returned to by Randall @mining atoms.
    The second is to demonstrate that the magnitude of resources is very significant compared to present day production levels. Such levels have been supported by a minerals and mining industry that has had the benefit of high density, low entropy fuel in the form of hydrocarbons, principally diesel fuel. Will future demands be met by use of low energy density sources? I doubt it.
    As IanL points out the scale of what is required is beyond enormous and the environmental impact will be very intrusive.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Nice discussion.
    But remember the relatively short life expectancy of both wind [15-20 yrs] and solar [25-30]. With routine care, electricity production from coal, NatGas & nukes are in the 60+ yr range.
    And grid storage batteries? Maybe 15 years or so.
    Relatively little, as of 2023, of wind & solar are recyclable. So, we will be replacing a large percentage of wind turbines & solar panels (and lithium batteries) with newly mined minerals indefinitely.
    Wind/solar/batteries just don’t scale.
    The present policy prescription of NetZero will make civilization more fragile.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. JiT; thanks for flagging this up on the Copper thread on WUWT. It’s a great post: somehow I missed it first time round.

    One thing which caught my eye is the Blackrock diagram comparing the resources needed for a windfarm to those for a gas plant.
    It seems odd to make the comparison to a 100 MW gas turbine. It would be more appropriate to look at a modern CCGT plant of, say, 1000MW as those are typical for many grids around the world.
    Secondly they show 20 wind turbines which infers 5 MW per unit. Yet the state-of-the-art machines have reached 15 MW, with a couple of Chinese firms announcing 18 MW.
    So the comparison seems rather anomalous, almost as if it used old info.
    Thinking further, I suppose they could be 15 MW units with a capacity factor of around 33% but there’s no explanantion.

    Overall, although the estimates seem to vary, it’s clear that we haven’t got a prayer of hitting Net Zero!

    Liked by 1 person

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