“Green Energy” advocates dream of powering society entirely with wind and solar farms combined with massive batteries. Realizing this dream would require the biggest expansion in mining the world has seen and would produce huge quantities of waste. Engineers joke about discovering “unobtanium,” a magical energy-producing element that appears out of nowhere, requires no land, weighs nothing, and emits nothing. Absent the realization of that impossible dream, hydrocarbons remain a far better alternative than today’s green dreams.
BY Mark P. Mills for The Wall Street Journal and Alexander Ackley R. A. for The International Chronicles
“Renewable energy” is a misnomer. Wind and solar machines and batteries are built from nonrenewable materials. And they wear out. Old equipment must be decommissioned, generating millions of tons of waste. The International Renewable Energy Agency calculates that solar goals for 2050 consistent with the Paris Accords will result in old-panel disposal constituting more than double the tonnage of all today’s global plastic waste. Consider some other sobering numbers:
A single electric-car battery weighs about 1,000 pounds. Fabricating one requires digging up, moving and processing more than 500,000 pounds of raw materials somewhere on the planet. The alternative? Use gasoline and extract one-tenth as much total tonnage to deliver the same number of vehicle-miles over the battery’s seven-year life.
When electricity comes from wind or solar machines, every unit of energy produced, or mile traveled, requires far more materials and land than fossil fuels. That physical reality is literally visible: A wind or solar farm stretching to the horizon can be replaced by a handful of gas-fired turbines, each no bigger than a tractor-trailer.
Building one wind turbine requires 900 tons of steel, 2,500 tons of concrete and 45 tons of nonrecyclable plastic. Solar power requires even more cement, steel and glass—not to mention other metals. Global silver and indium mining will jump 250% and 1,200% respectively over the next couple of decades to provide the materials necessary to build the number of solar panels, the International Energy Agency forecasts. World demand for rare-earth elements—which aren’t rare but are rarely mined in America—will rise 300% to 1,000% by 2050 to meet the Paris green goals. If electric vehicles replace conventional cars, demand for cobalt and lithium, will rise more than 20-fold. That doesn’t count batteries to back up wind and solar grids.
Last year a Dutch government-sponsored study concluded that the Netherlands’ green ambitions alone would consume a major share of global minerals. “Exponential growth in [global] renewable energy production capacity is not possible with present-day technologies and annual metal production,” it concluded.
The demand for minerals likely won’t be met by mines in Europe or the U.S. Instead, much of the mining will take place in nations with oppressive labor practices. The Democratic Republic of the Congo produces 70% of the world’s raw cobalt, and China controls 90% of cobalt refining. The Sydney-based Institute for a Sustainable Future cautions that a global “gold” rush for minerals could take miners into “some remote wilderness areas [that] have maintained high biodiversity because they haven’t yet been disturbed.”
What’s more, mining and fabrication require the consumption of hydrocarbons. Building enough wind turbines to supply half the world’s electricity would require nearly two billion tons of coal to produce the concrete and steel, along with two billion barrels of oil to make the composite blades. More than 90% of the world’s solar panels are built in Asia on coal-heavy electric grids.
Engineers joke about discovering “unobtanium,” a magical energy-producing element that appears out of nowhere, requires no land, weighs nothing, and emits nothing. Absent the realization of that impossible dream, hydrocarbons remain a far better alternative than today’s green dreams.
900 Tons of material to build just 1 windmill
Here is an example of the economics involved in Wind Energy:
MidAmerican Energy announced they were about to build the tallest wind turbine in the US, a 2.3 MW 554 foot tall (with 173 foot blade extended) about the same as the Washington Monument. It will be 337 feet ground to hub, use 395 cubic yards of concrete, 63,400 pounds of reinforcing steel, and generate power when winds are 7 mph or higher, producing the most wind at 29 mph. Important figures such as cost, capacity, maintenance, and so on not (Remer).
MidAmerican Energy is owned by Warren Buffet, who has this to say about why he builds wind farms: “I will do anything that is basically covered by the law to reduce Berkshire’s tax rate,” Buffet told an audience in Omaha, Nebraska recently. “For example, on wind energy, we get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit.” (Pfotenhauer).
Yet it doesn’t begin to capture all of the energy inputs to wind turbines. Notably, transmission is left out of the picture, and the natural gas plants to balance intermittent energy, the mining of the ores for iron and steel, or crushing of rocks to make cement/concrete, the fossil fuels in the tons of epoxy, and so on to make the 900 short tons of material (it is probably more like 1300 tons given other peer-reviewed publications on materials used in 2 MW turbines.
Most wind power will be forever stranded, because it’s too far from cities to run transmission lines to. If you look at the state level wind maps in the Wind Energy Resource Atlas of the United States List of Maps (RREDC) it appears as if cities have been placed as far from commercial wind power as possible. But no diabolical force is to blame. The distance is due to cities arising near good, flat farmland, yet the best wind is on the ridges of highlands. To get around this, wind turbines taller than the St. Louis arch at peak blade tip have been proposed for the Southeast and other areas without commercial wind.
You’d need 32,850 wind turbines to replace the Cubic Mile of Oil consumed globally every year, and a grand total of 1,642,000 turbines to replace oil over the next 50 years, which may be conservative given that the wind isn’t blowing all the time so that triple or more would be needed on a national grid with massive energy storage batteries. A wind turbine lifespan is 20 years, so many of them would need to be repowered or replaced before the 50 years are up. Anyhow, clearly wind turbines require too many oil-powered trucks and cement, steel, and so on made with fossil-fired energy to outlast the brief age of oil.
This wind turbine is comprised of at least 875.5 tons of material. The weight of the 40 to 100 geopiers and other components aren’t shown, so let’s assume 900 tons total. An average car weighs 2 tons, so each windmill equals 450 cars — try to top that Burning Man Festival! The crane, excavators, graders, cement, worker, and other trucks required to haul blades, equipment, and workers might weigh 10 times as much as the wind turbine, so some fraction of the energy of all these should count as energy inputs as well, from mining to operational vehicle, and the fuel used (including the 10 foot deep, 100 foot wide, 1650 tons of soil dug out and put back over the concrete base).
- Takes 3 weeks to build from excavation to operation
- 40 to 100 geopiers installed for stability, weight unknown
- Excavate 10 feet deep 100 feet wide
- Set 96,000 pounds of reinforcing steel rebar = 48 tons
- 53 concrete trucks pour foundations. If each truck can haul 8 cubic yards at 2538 lbs/yard * 53 = 1,076,112 pounds = 538 tons
- Move 1,500 cubic yards of soil @ 2,200 lbs per cubic yard = 3.3 million pounds = 1,650 tons
- 3 blades : each 173 feet long and 27,000 pounds for 81,000 pounds = 40.5 tons
- 8 truckloads to deliver turbine components
- Nacelle: weight 181,000 lbs = 90.5 tons with the generator, gearbox, and rotor shaft
- Hub: weight unknown
- Base tower height 53 feet 11 inches, weight 97,459 lbs = 48.7 tons
- Mid tower height 84 feet 6 inches, weight 115,587 lbs = 57.8 tons
- Top tower height 119 feet, weight 104,167 lbs = 52 tons
- Final tower height to blade tip when fully extended 442 feet
In the third world, the rich buy generators to provide electricity, not windmills and solar panels.
Distributed generation doesn’t provide the power to make steel, cement, or run the transportation to deliver the windmill or solar panel to a home or building, it will not keep civilization as we know it going, and will last as long as someone nearby has the technical skills to know what is wrong and fabricate the needed part.
The fact is that if you’re not below the 35th parallel you will never get enough solar power, and even there, not much in the winter, and class 4+ wind (which is necessary to run the wind turbines) is mainly in large plains and shore areas in the north of the Northern Hemisphere. “Renewable Energy” is a destructive myth.