Serving Franklin County, WA

Carefully weigh energy tradeoffs

President Biden is unwisely “throttling up” plans to ditch carbon fuels unilaterally despite the extreme consequences of doing so. He wants to accelerate replacement of gas/diesel vehicles with electrics (EVs) which will be recharged by electrical grids energized by solar, wind and hydro power---- not coal, natural gas, or nuclear fuels.

Additionally, in our state, Governor Inslee mimicked Berkeley (CA) building codes stopping the installation of natural gas stoves and water heaters; however, a federal appeals court overturned the ban. The court agreed with restaurant owners who argued the city ordinance bypassed federal energy regulations.

We are learning there are dramatic consequences to unilaterally dumping coal, oil, and natural gas. The issue is not solely about greenhouse gas emissions, but air, water, and land contamination from mining, smelting and landfills filling with high tech waste.

Mitigating the impact of climate change is a commonly shared goal. However, what is not discussed are the consequences to “electrifying everything” using renewables. There are tradeoffs.

For example, Texans learned their state needed to invest in natural gas electricity generation to protect against lengthy blackouts such as happened in February 2021. Additional reliable power is not only needed during extreme weather conditions, but to keep pace with population growth.

State lawmakers created a Texas Energy Insurance Program to support gas generators to backstop renewables. Wind power accounts for 30 percent of Texas’ electricity generation.

China, with 1,200 coal-fired electric plants, is the global leading emitter of CO2, yet the Chinese permitted more coal facilities last year than any time in the last seven years. At the same time in 2022, China led the world in installed wind and solar capacity accounting for 37 percent of the worldwide increase.

China has a chokehold on minerals/metals required for electric vehicles (EV).

“Global demand for electric vehicle battery minerals (lithium, graphite, cobalt, nickel) is projected to increase by between six and 13 times by 2040,” added Simon Michaux, a noted Australian-born geologist who works for Finland’s Geological Society.

Rare earth minerals (REM)—a group of seventeen elements with similar qualities—are used in hundreds of high-technology products and military equipment. China dominates REM processing, technology, and stockpiles.

The average smart phone contains at least forty elements, and the average EV uses six times more critical minerals than a combustion car. An onshore wind plant needs nine times more mineral resources than an equivalent gas-fired power plant. pointed out that copper is rarely discussed. It is critical for the entire electricity infrastructure regardless of whether transmission facilities are sending wind, natural gas, or nuclear generated electricity.

Copper is one of the few materials that can be recycled repeatedly without any loss of performance. Recycling copper is 85 percent more energy efficient than processing ore and reduces CO2 emissions by 65 percent.

Mining and smelting copper ore is a water, air, and land polluter. Estimates of the number of such abandoned mine sites range from 161,000 in 12 western states and 33,000 have degraded the environment, according to the Government Accountability Office.

According to a new S&P study, electric vehicles require two and a half times as much copper as an internal combustion engine vehicle. Its researchers learned that copper demand will double to fifty million metric tons annually by 2035, To put that number into perspective, S&P Global noted that it is “more than all the copper consumed in the world between 1900 and 2021.”

“Current copper reserves stand at 880 million tons. That is equal to approximately 30 years of production. But industry will need 4.5 billion tons of copper to manufacture just one generation of renewable technologies,” estimates Michaux.

The stakes are exorbitant. Why barrel forward putting our future in one energy portfolio without carefully weighing the consequences and understanding tradeoffs?

— Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He can be contacted at [email protected].


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