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Mazzuca: Is 3% really the solution?

During the last 20 years the climate debate has been dominated by deniers and alarmists. This is unfortunate because while climate change is real (sorry, deniers) it’s also not as severe as those who have turned the subject into a religion would have us believe, according to author and scientist Michael Shellenberger in “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.” I make the latter statement because humankind’s capacity to modify and adapt to the environment is truly remarkable. For example, if we use loss of life as the criterion, we see some studies suggest that just one-tenth as many people die from natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and wildfires today than was the case a century ago despite a quadrupling of the world’s population.

Climate activists like to paint a picture where nearly everything runs on renewables, but that’s unrealistic. There is a reason that after 20 years of governmental subsidies, the wind and solar component of the world’s energy remains at just 3%, according to ourworldindata.org.

So, while much of the science behind climate change remains unsettled, there is one aspect of the matter that is settled; the limits science places energy technology. For example according to Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, the maximum rate at which the sun’s photons can be converted to electrons is 33% — our best solar technology is at 26% efficiency. Wind’s maximum capture is 60% — our best wind turbines are at 45%, which means we are close to the limits the laws of physics will allow, he says.

We’re told the solution to this problem is storing energy in batteries, but batteries have limitations, too. Consider, one of the largest battery plant on earth, the giant Tesla plant in Nevada, could require 500 years to manufacture enough batteries to store just one day’s worth of America’s electricity needs, according to Mills.

The rest of the story

The manufacture of wind, solar and battery technologies require nonrenewable materials. According to Mills, a single electric-car battery weighing 500 pounds requires digging up, moving and processing more than 250 tons of earth somewhere on the planet.  Meanwhile, building a 100-megawatt wind farm (using wind turbines comprising as many as 8,000 parts each) to power just 75,000 homes requires 30,000 tons of iron ore, 50,000 tons of concrete and 900 tons of non-recyclable plastics; you can increase those figures by 150% to get the same amount of energy from solar.

Wind and solar also require significant amounts of rare earth metals, such as cobalt, lithium and dysprosium all of which require mining, most of which would occur in developing nations where the mining won’t be done by union workers, Mills says. Rather, as Amnesty International suggests, “The marketing of state-of-the-art technologies are in stark contrast to children carrying bags of rocks.” Mining also requires massive amounts of conventional energy, as will refining the necessary materials to build the wind, solar and battery hardware, all of which will impact the environment adversely.  

And let’s not forget waste; Mills says with their relatively short life span (about 20 years) the International Renewable Energy Agency calculates that by 2050, the disposal of worn-out solar panels will constitute more than double the tonnage of all of today’s global plastic waste. Soon thereafter the worn-out wind turbines and batteries will add millions of tons more waste, which in all likelihood will be sent to developing nations for disposal, creating entirely new environmental challenges.  

Bang for the buck

Mills says the cost to build a giant wind turbine is roughly the same as drilling an oil well. But wind turbines generate the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil per hour while oil rigs produce at 10 times that rate. Additionally, it costs less than 50 cents to store a barrel of oil or its equivalent in natural gas, but it takes $200 worth of batteries (4,000 times the cost) to store the equivalent amount of wind or solar energy.

Scientists measure energy density, i.e., how much energy/power we get per unit of land as “dimensions of power per unit area.” The energy density of wind and solar is 1.5 “micro”-joules per cubic meter, according to Mills, while oil’s energy density is 35-45 “giga”-joules per cubic meter, a difference of a quadrillion, yes, you read that correctly, that’s a thousand trillion times greater; and nuclear, well, without using scientific abbreviations that number wouldn’t fit on this page.

So, before we desecrate acres of pristine land, court the consequences of child labor and create waste problems of epic proportions, we should reconsider our alternatives. Advances in technology have and are making fossil fuels and nuclear energy easier to acquire, cleaner, safer and less expensive.  Only a foolish society chooses ideology over science.

Quote of the day: “Your assumptions are your windows on the world.  Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in,” — Isaac Asimov.


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