Why “Green” Energy Is Impossible

High on the Left’s agenda is mandating 100% “green” generation of electricity–if not 100% of energy, period. I believe Joe Biden, among others, has now come out for 100% “green” energy, meaning wind and solar. But for now, let’s stick with energy generation. Would it be feasible to get 100% of our electricity from wind and solar?

Basic problems with these energy sources include inefficiency and intermittency. Wind turbines produce energy around 40% of the time, and solar panels do much worse than that in many parts of the country. So how does a utility ensure that the lights will go on, even at night when the wind isn’t blowing?

The liberals’ favorite answer is “batteries.” Produce electricity when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, and store the energy in batteries for use when electricity is not being generated. Batteries exist, of course; we use them all the time. But where is the battery that can store the entire output of a power plant or a wind farm? That battery does not exist. Further, battery storage is ruinously expensive. The cost of storing the entire electricity needs of the U.S. for even a day would be prohibitive.

But that isn’t the worst of it. Wind and solar are low-intensity energy sources. It takes many acres of wind turbines to produce, on a best-case scenario, what a single power plant can produce. And solar panels are even worse. A single 3 mw wind turbine uses 335 tons of steel, 4.7 tons of copper, 3 tons of aluminum, 2 tons of rare earth elements, and 1,200 tons (2.4 million pounds!) of concrete. If we take seriously the idea of getting all of our electricity from wind and solar, where will all of those materials come from?

My colleague Isaac Orr has done the math. Isaac’s analysis is directed specifically to Minnesota, but we can extrapolate to U.S. and global electricity consumption.

Under the “No Fossil” scenario, [Energy+Environment Economics] estimated [for Xcel Energy that] Xcel would need 15,000 MW of wind, 21,000 MW of solar, and 24,000 MW of batteries that can last for five hours. We then doubled these estimates because Xcel Energy accounts for about half of Minnesota’s electricity generation, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This gives us a rough estimate of the amount of wind, solar, and storage needed to provide for nearly all of Minnesota’s electricity generation under a Minnesota Green New Deal.
For metal content for each of these technologies, we use this analysis produced by the World Bank, which shows how much metal is needed for each MW of wind, solar, and battery storage. Using these two sources, we can approximate how much metal would be needed to achieve the Walz administration’s goal of generating all of Minnesota’s electricity from carbon free energy sources while excluding large hydro and refusing to legalize new nuclear power plants in the state.

The World Bank numbers are low because they do not include the materials needed for transmission lines, substations, and distribution systems, which is where much of the copper goes. But we will ignore that problem.

If you add up all the metals that would be needed to build the [Minnesota] grid solely on wind, solar and storage, it would require 5.8 million tons of processed metals.
When it comes to some of the more-familiar metals, it would take more than 182,533 metric tons of copper, 116,000 metric tons of nickel, 60,000 metric tons of cobalt, 1.02 million metric tons of iron, 3.45 million metric tons of steel, and 15,000 metric tons of lead to build the required solar panels, wind turbines, and battery packs.

These numbers are large in relation to the global supply of these materials.

According to the United States Geological Survey, global copper production is around 20 million metric tons, meaning building these wind turbines and solar panels would account for about 1 percent of global copper consumption.

But that is only Minnesota, whose electricity needs would consume 14% of domestic copper.

Then there is nickel:

[A] Minnesota Green New Deal would require 4.75 percent of the global total of nickel mined in 2019. If this nickel were to be mined domestically, it would take more than 9 years of Minnesota consuming the entire U.S. output to build the wind turbines and battery packs laid out in the Xcel presentation.

Also cobalt:

Cobalt is another ingredient in lithium ion batteries, and a Minnesota Green New Deal would require 60,000 metric tons of it. This may not sound like a lot, but world cobalt production was only 140,000 metric tons in 2019, meaning Minnesota would require 43 percent of global cobalt output to build the batteries needed to store electricity produced by wind turbines and solar panels.

Further, Minnesota’s “Green New Deal” (again, limited only to electricity production) would consume around 5 percent of U.S. iron production, and 4 percent of U.S. steel output.

These numbers are sobering, obviously. But Minnesota consumes only 1/71 of the electricity in the U.S. If we extrapolate Minnesota’s numbers to the U.S. as a whole, a rough conclusion is that getting all of our electricity from wind, solar and batteries would consume around 70% of all of the copper currently mined in the world, 337% of global nickel production, 3,053% of the world’s total cobalt production, 355% of the U.S.’s iron output, and 284% of U.S. steel production. Along with unfathomable quantities of concrete–which, by the way, off-gases CO2.

Thus, at a minimum, implementing just this one part of the Democratic Party’s Green New Deal would require an expansion of mining, world-wide, that would dwarf anything in human history. Whether the world contains enough of these metals to support a transition to solar, wind and batteries in the U.S.–and if so, for how long–I have no idea. And that mining, along with the infrastructure needed to support it and the transportation of vast quantities of metals around the world, would itself have inevitable environmental impacts.

Further, if the goal of this whole exercise is to combat global warming, there is little point in talking about American electricity production. If one accepts the calculations of the global warming alarmists, the impact of anything we do on global temperatures is risibly small. To have perceptible effect, China, India, Brazil and the rest of the developing world would have to get all of their electricity from wind and solar, too. That would increase the above demand for materials by something like 15 to 20 times.

Obviously, none of this is going to happen. And the environmentalists know it isn’t going to happen. How do we know this? Because, at the same time they tell us that global warming is an existential threat that must be combatted by getting all of our energy from wind and solar installations, they bitterly oppose, and successfully frustrate, the very mining projects that would be needed to produce the materials for the turbines and solar panels they say are essential to the continued existence of the human race.

Here in Minnesota, we have some of the world’s largest undeveloped reserves of copper, nickel and cobalt. Why are they still undeveloped? Solely because of rabid opposition by the same environmentalists who tell us the world is coming to an end on account of global warming.

The Democrats’ “green” agenda does not represent a set of meaningful policy proposals. Taken seriously, and objectively evaluated, they immediately crumble. It is literally true that the Democrats could propose to harness the energy of unicorns running on treadmills, and it would make as much sense as reliance on wind, solar and batteries. “Green” energy is driven by two closely related things: 1) politics, and 2) enormous quantities of money being made by politically-connected wind and solar entrepreneurs.