HOW MUCH FOR
By: Marvin L. Covault, Lt Gen US Army, retired
June 12, 2022
It is not very encouraging when an article begins with a disclaimer, but for this one it is necessary. This article contains a lot of numbers associated with the Green Movement and many of them conflict from source to source. I intend to use the numbers to paint a picture of what is going on in the world about carbon emissions. Some of the numbers may be exactly wrong but also about right. About right means more than one source had the same or similar number so I used it.
THE WORLD IN WHICH WE LIVE:
Humans: What human population can our earth support? Guestimates abound but there are some very convincing arguments that the maximum could be 9-10 billion. With the population closing in on 8 billion, we may already be on borrowed time. What immediately comes to mind is that a little over 100 days ago Russia invaded Ukraine. While there are already about 47 million people in 81 countries on the edge of famine, The World Food Program warns that the Russia/Ukraine conflict could result in 276 million facing “acute food insecurity.” Not a comforting thought.
One final thought to keep in mind about the human race today; 17% are illiterate and probably poor, 26% live less than 14 years, and 66% die between ages 15 and 64 due primarily to malnutrition and/or lack of adequate medical care because they are poor. These poor people live in poor countries.
Minerals: None of the earth’s minerals are renewable. Already, 17 of the 78 minerals contained in the earth’s crust are classified as, ‘rare earth metals,” some of which are essential to manufacturing almost anything electric. And, you guessed it, China controls about 80% of the world’s supply. Controlling the supply provides an opportunity to control processing which leads to controlling price and also who gets what share. Not a comforting thought.
Electricity: Worldwide requirement for electricity has been steadily increasing since Alexander Graham Bell lit up the first light bulb in 1879. Throughout the last century, central heating and air conditioning became commonplace in the hundreds of millions of structures, including an ever-increasing demand for electric power. But since the turn of this century, electricity demand has been increasing at an increasing rate. An estimated 900,000 people are going online for the first time every day. Access to the internet increased by 54% in 2021. Consider that about 84% of the world’s population, over 6.6 billion people, recharge smartphones and laptops every day? Now we are talking about charging hundreds of millions of car batteries that weigh in at about 1000 pounds.
CREATING ELECTRIC POWER FROM RENEWABLE WIND AND SOLAR: Building one wind turbine requires 45 tons of plastic (processed from petroleum), 900 tons of steel, 2,500 tons of concrete, and 2 tons of rare-earth elements. To produce the 900 tons of steel needed for one turbine requires about 150 tons of coking coal and about 300 tons of iron ore.
More bad news. Cement is the number one carbon contributor in the world. The production of one pound of cement also produces one pound of CO2.
More bad news, those 45 tons of plastic are nonrecyclable.
If we want to produce half the world’s electricity from wind, we will need to build about 3 million more turbines. Back to the 900 tons of steel required for one turbine, 3 million turbines would require 2.7 billion tons of earth materials.
Yes, one more bad news point; after a turbine life-cycle of about 20 years, start all over.
Finally, the worse news of all: After we dig out of the earth billions of tons of raw materials, transport them, process them into a usable product, again transport them and finally construct a turbine, we will have unavoidably created an enormous carbon emissions footprint. Some researchers believe the actual CO2 reduction is so insignificant that one large windfarm saves less in a year than is given off over the same period by a single jumbo jet flying daily between the U.S. and England.
Wind turbine cost: The average is about $3 million. Again, if we need 3 million of them, the total is in the neighborhood of $9 trillion. Add to that an annual maintenance cost of $45,000 each ($1.35 billion for the world) and you will likely conclude that most of the countries in the world cannot afford to be part of the program. That fact takes us back to the Paris Accords; good ideas but probably not within the art of the possible.
Electricity from solar panels: The discussion of cement/steel requirement for energy from wind is sobering. I’m sorry to report that energy from solar power requires even more cement and steel than wind turbines to produce the same amount of electricity. Additionally, production of solar panels requires large amounts of silver and indium. Mining of these metals is expected to increase by 250% and 1200% respectively over the next twenty years and someday we will likely run out of both. Solar panels require other rare-earth elements which are not currently mined in the US. Demand for these elements is expected to rise 250-1000% by 2050. Access to these metals is questionable. For example, the Republic of the Congo produces 70% of the world’s raw cobalt and China controls 90% of cobalt mining and refining
More facts bearing on the Green Revolution:
BIDEN’S FOLLY: On the afternoon of 20 January 2021, our new president took a sharp left turn, and signed away our short-lived energy independence thereby setting in motion an economic disaster, all to make a point about moving the world away from fossil-fueled vehicles. All this without consultation with Congress, let alone the American people who he had just a few hours earlier pledged to support and defend. His action was not a bold move for mankind, a world-leader move, it was a plain and simple gotcha-Trump move. How much research had he and his staff done on the viability of a world full of electronic vehicles, EVs?
Fact: The world has a greenhouse gas emissions problem and passenger vehicles account for about 15% of the carbon.
THE PARIS ACCORDS, fact: the Accords entered into force on November 4, 2016, and have been signed by 195 countries and ratified by 190 as of January 2021. The objective is to limit greenhouse gas emissions by 50 % by 2030 and ultimately to levels that would prevent global temperatures from increasing more than 3.6 °F before the end of this century.
Each signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement was asked to submit a plan. The “plan” was to specify their year-by-year program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So, what happens if a nation does not submit a plan or does not achieve its objectives? Nothing, absolutely nothing. The plans are not enforceable, and there are no penalties for failure. The Paris Climate Agreement is a glorified global PR effort. No teeth. No funding. No sanctions for failure. But the story gets worse.
Under the Paris agreement, “developed countries” such as the United States pledged to provide funding and technical support to “developing countries”, such as India, to assist with emissions reductions; wherein India promptly estimated that it would need “at least US $2.5 trillion” in aid by 2030 to achieve their emissions reduction targets. The World Bank officially categorizes 139 nations as “developing”. How many of the 139 will want a handout from the U.S. taxpayers to achieve their unenforceable environmental goals?
To date, almost 75% of the nations’ pledges are insufficient to achieve the 2030 target. And then there is China’s “pledge”. They will continue to increase emissions of carbon dioxide at least until 2030; i.e., zero reduction planning.
COAL-FIRED POWER PLANTS, Fact: Coal-fired power plants account for about 26% of global greenhouse emissions. The world has about 10,000 coal-fired power plants; the US has less than 250. China and India combined have over 35% of the world’s population and about 50% (5,100) coal-fired power plants. That’s the bad news; the worse news is that between the two of them China and India are in the process of building 634 new coal-fired power plants by 2030. China is also building and financing hundreds of other coal-fired power plants in countries such as Turkey, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Egypt, and Bangladesh.
Fact: How much leverage does President Biden have to get the likes of China and India on board with greenhouse gas reductions? Absolute zero.
With that background information, let’s get to the heart of the EV issue, the battery.
BATTERY POWERED VEHICLES: The Green New Deal seeks to replace gas-guzzling vehicles with battery power to reduce hydrocarbon buildup. This is not a simple matter. Some factors impacting this green issue:
All world transportation (cars, trucks, planes, boats, trains) accounts for about 23% of greenhouse gas emissions while vehicles alone contribute about 15%. There are over 1.45 billion vehicles in the world and less than half of one percent are electric. There are about 291 million vehicles in the U.S., 20% of the world total, also with only about half of one percent electric. The point is, that we have a long way to go to reach the Paris Agreement goal of, “limiting greenhouse gas emissions by 50 % by 2030”.
Fact: Increasing the number of EVs is not just a U.S. issue, it is a world issue: 80% of vehicles are outside the U.S.
One electric car battery weighs in at about 1000 pounds. To produce one battery requires digging up and processing about 500,000 pounds of raw materials such as cadmium, cobalt, lead, lithium, and nickel. For example, for some of these types of materials, the end product is about one-half of one percent of the weight of the material dug out of the ground.
Here is the magnitude of the problem: To power 50% of the world’s vehicles with batteries, we would have to dig up, transport, and process about 175 billion tons of earth’s materials. Currently, electric car battery life is about ten years and then we need to dig another 175 billion tons, again and again and that is just to power half the cars.
A new favorite sound-bite by the Green folks is “net-zero.” Well, Green folks, try this one on for size: Producing an electric vehicle contributes, on average, twice as much to global warming and uses double the amount of energy than producing a combustion engine car. This is mainly because of its lithium-ion battery. Given all that, it takes about nine years for an electric car to be “greener” than a gas/diesel car, assuming an annual average mileage of 8100 miles. With an average lithium battery life of about ten years, what is the net gain? Not much.
BTW, another fact the Green environmentalists won’t tell you about is (that with half the world’s vehicles EV) every 10 years we will have about 350 million tons of spent, very toxic, lithium-ion batteries. Well, they might say, “let’s just recycle them.” Without major advances in battery technology, recycling lithium is currently cost-prohibitive.
Finally, we get to the title question, LITHIUM, HOW MUCH FOR HOW LONG?
Any discussion of lithium will refer to the amount of lithium in terms of “resources” and/or “reserves.” Resources are an estimate of the amounts believed to be physically contained in the earth’s crust while reserves refer to an estimate of the amount that can technically and economically be expected to be produced from a geological formation.
LITHIUM AND THE CHINA FACTOR:
China is the best long-range strategic planner in the world, and they have used their expertise to control the supply of lithium. China has for years been quietly buying lithium producers and deposits around the world.
· Australia: China owns a 51% stake in Australia’s Greenbushes mine, currently the world’s largest.
· Chile: In May 2022 China acquired a stake in Chile’s lithium mining operations for $4.1 billion. Chile is currently the largest producer of lithium in the world.
· Congo: China is gaining control over lithium deposits in the Congo which are being hailed as, “the world’s largest undrilled lithium resource.”
· UK: China has a controlling 73% stake in the lithium mines in south-western England.
· Afghanistan: Since the U.S. fell in Afghanistan, the Taliban rewarded China for its support by granting it effective control of the lithium mines in Afghanistan.
· Canada: In January 2022, China bought Canada’s Lithium mining company for $919 million.
Chinese chemical companies account for about 80% of the world’s total output of raw materials for EVs, smartphones, and laptop computers. China controls the processing of most of the critical minerals in lithium-ion batteries; rare earth minerals, lithium, cobalt, and graphite.
Additionally, of the 136 lithium-ion plants expected to be operational by 2029, 101 will be based in China.
Whoever controls lithium mining and processing will control the price of lithium and by extension the price of electronic vehicle batteries.
When looking for an answer to the question, of how long will the earth’s supply of lithium last, there are many variables to consider. For example, what are the current lithium reserves (mineable and available) and resources (exist but may not be currently mineable), can we find more, which size battery (small, medium, large) do we use in the computations, what will the total worldwide demand be, can new technology expand battery life, etc.? Some studies conclude that demand will exceed supply by 2050, others say we should be OK with supply until 2100. I could not find a study that was optimistic about lithium supply beyond 2100. Stanford University has published some good work on the subject; here is one:
Eric Eason Ph.D., Stanford University has done some interesting research on lithium supply as it relates to EV batteries. Keep in mind that over a billion mobile phones are produced globally every year so there is great demand outside EV needs. Having said that, Dr. Eason concludes that if we could use the entire world’s lithium reserves, we can make 4.1 billion medium-sized EV batteries. That means, with half the world’s vehicles electric (700 million and increasing) and with a battery life of about 10 years, the known lithium reserves will be gone by 2080.
Dr. Eason’s concluding remark is, “It is certainly possible to build millions of electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries, but it may not be possible to make billions of them.” We will need billions and billions. And keep in mind that carbon emissions from vehicles represent only 15% of the total world’s greenhouse gas problem.
Supply and demand. Every time a truckload of lithium ore departs the mining area, world supply goes down as demand is increasing exponentially. Lithium carbonate prices have increased 413% since the start of 2021. What does that portent for the price of EVs?
Let me be clear, lithium is not the overriding issue in the green revolution. But, I do believe it is emblematic of what is going on. President Biden and Department of Energy Secretary Granholm seem fixated on EVs in America as if that is THE overriding solution to carbon emissions. We are engaged in a soundbite planning regime. Have we heard anyone in the current administration talk about any of the issues in the above paragraphs? No. No details, just a soundbite end state. No accounting for the massive number of assumptions they have made and the absence of factual content. Where is the expert testimony from Congressional committee hearings? Where is the long-range strategic plan from the Energy Department?
Should we consider ALTERNATIVES TO ELECTRIC VEHICLES?
Liquefied and compressed natural gas; are both fuel-efficient for vehicles. They are not expensive to build and reduce carbon monoxide emissions by over 90% compared to gasoline power. The U.S. has about 500 trillion cubic feet of known reserves of recoverable natural gas. It is estimated that there are at least 800 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under the African continent. Over 100 countries have known, recoverable reserves of natural gas.
Is natural gas a viable alternative to gas/diesel-powered vehicles? Here is a statement from Waste Management Inc. “Transitioning our fleet (4000 of 16,000 trucks) from diesel to natural gas yields a range of environmental benefits, including saving over 350 million gallons of fuel and reducing about 3.5 million metric tons of CO2 emissions. Our vehicles powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) have nearly zero particulate emissions, cut greenhouse gas emissions by over 20 percent, and are far quieter than their diesel counterparts.”
What have we heard from the Biden administration about natural gas-powered vehicles as a supplement or alternative? Nothing, because their tunnel vision on electric vehicles is an unfailing 20-20.
Should we consider ALTERNATIVES TO POWER FROM WIND AND SOLAR?
Electricity generation emits more carbon dioxide in the United States than does transportation or industry, and nuclear power is the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the country. Nuclear power generation is also relatively cheap. Here is the problem; due to government regulations, environmentalists’ concerns, and lawsuits, it takes anywhere from 20 to 30 years from inception to bringing a nuclear power plant on line in the U.S. Nuclear power plants are safe, clean and produce the cheapest power; a reliable source of clean energy
China has 27 nuclear power reactors in operation, 24 under construction, and is planning to construct seven new nuclear power plants annually between now and 2030. By 2050, nuclear power should exceed 400 new nuclear reactors; a trillion-dollar investment.
93 nuclear reactors are operating in the U.S. at 55 locations in 28 states. Eight new licenses have been issued and two nuclear sites are under construction.
However, the face of nuclear energy is changing. Oklo, a 22-person Silicon Valley start-up company has a plan to build mini-nuclear reactors, powered by the waste from conventional nuclear reactors.
Their concept is to build a micro-reactor in a year or less to power, for example, utility companies, industrial sites, large companies, medium-sized communities, and university campuses.
Are small reactors a viable option? The U.S. Navy commissioned its first nuclear-powered ship in 1961. There are currently 80 nuclear-powered ships in the U.S. Navy with over 5,700 reactor years of safe operations. Yes, small reactors, brought online quickly can provide the U.S. with cheap, clean, safe power.
What have we heard from the Biden Administration or Congress about the fast-tracking construction of hundreds of cheap, safe, efficient, power generation facilities with mini-nuclear reactors? Nothing, because it conflicts with their tunnel vision on wind and solar. How do we recharge our car, iPhone, laptop, lawn mower, hand tools, etc. etc. etc. if the sun doesn’t shine and/or the wind doesn’t blow?
Every element in the earth’s crust is finite with some minerals already in short supply. The potential massive demand for lithium may well place this mineral on the list of “rare earth metals.”
While the supply and demand for lithium are presently balanced, many ongoing studies have concluded that the sustainability of the long-term supply of lithium is at risk. Therefore, we should consider developing alternate options for reducing carbon buildup from the transportation sector; e.g., natural gas-powered vehicles.
Vehicles contribute about 15% of the worldwide carbon build-up. If half the vehicles become electric, we may end up transforming worldwide transportation for a nominal 7% saving.
By the turn of the next century, it is conceivable that we will have a world with literally billions of junked EVs with no batteries.
Lithium battery technology has been evolving for over 50 years. Economically feasible recycling of batteries must take center stage now.
China’s control of the world’s lithium reserves as well as the production of lithium carbonate can become a game-changer. While the cost of an EV is already out of reach for most of the world’s population, the future cost of the battery alone could put the price of most electric vehicles too high for billions more people.
Carbon build-up is a world problem. Analysis of the Paris Accords indicates that only a few of the 195 countries can afford to play a meaningful role in the green revolution. Wind, solar and moving water are the only renewable sources of power. Moving towards the production of a large percentage of power from wind turbines and solar farms is too expensive for most countries to implement. Power supplies from both wind and solar have to be backed up with some alternative source for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.
Mining, transporting, and processing leading to the construction of wind turbines and solar farms require such massive amounts of earth materials and power that the net carbon reduction is drastically reduced; a factor not discussed by green advocates.
Power demand and consumption will continue to rise as many experts predict the world population growing to 11 billion in the next few decades. We should consider the rapid development of reliable, clean power production alternatives; e.g., nuclear.
We are at the front end of a dramatic transition for mother earth. For eons, humans have been removing unrenewable substances from the earth. But there has always been so much of “it” that we didn’t notice and neither our lives nor decision-making were negatively impacted by shortages. But now we are in the process of determining the remaining reserves of that which has become essential to the everyday lives of 8 billion people. We are counting the billions of barrels of oil remaining, the trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, the billions of tons of iron ore and copper, and sources of clean water and we already have a working list of earth’s rare metals.
About 6.6 billion people have smartphones. The magic in the glass is due to a dash of the rare metal indium which serves as the transparent conductor between the phone and your finger. A little europium and terbium provide red and green hues on the screen, a speck of tantalum regulates power, and lithium stores the power. These and other rare earth metals are essential to most of our communications gadgets, cars, etc. Someday all of these earth materials will be used up. The same assumption applies to crude oil, natural gas, uranium, trees, iron ore, clean water, etc.
While the degradation of natural resources has been going on for centuries, we are now, for the first time, face to face with the reality that we cannot do something that needs to be done because we will run out of some essential resources, for example, lithium. From now on, if we are provided with a new technology that will make our lives better, we will have to pause and ask, are there enough mineral reserves available to sustain the capability? Will one nation be able to control the outcome? Will this further divide the world’s nations into the “haves” and “have-nots”? This is a new revelation for the world but unfortunately, we see our nation’s leaders single-mindedly plowing ahead, the facts be damned, believing other nations will follow when it is obvious they will not because they can not.
Mother earth is in an unstoppable retrograde. At some point in the future, be it two or three hundred years, what remains of the human race will in all likelihood live in a rural sixteen-hundreds type of self-sustaining environment.