Sustaining the Wind Part 2 – Indium and Beyond…

This is Part II of the “Sustaining the Wind” series of essays by David Jones. For Part I, click here.

At the conclusion of part 1[i] of this series, we saw that the putative demand for the element indium in order to build some 15,000,000 wind turbines (at a nominal peak capacity of roughly 900 MW) that would be required to produce annual outputs of 90 exajoules of energy, given the low capacity utilization associated with wind infrastructure, was on the order of 18,000 tons.  Although predictions about the total geological supply of any element or mineral are inherently fuzzy, we have also seen that if true, it is quite possible, that the indium demand for wind power alone, never mind the solar industry where it is a key constituent of “CIGS” (copper-indium-gallium-selenide) thin film solar cells, might well exceed the geologically available reserves of the element.   In this part we will look at indium as a surrogate for the many critical elements on which modern technology depends.   We noted in part 1 that a consideration demand for the elements and minerals required to construct so called “renewable energy” infrastructure is one to two orders of magnitude higher than the demand required to construct nuclear power plants.   Moreover we examined data connected with the Danish database of commissioned and decommissioned wind turbines to determine that historically wind turbines remain operational of a mean period of about 15 years – with some capacity lasting a little longer than 30 years, and some for less than two years – and thus efforts to expand wind capacity – which now produces less than 2 exajoules of the more than 560 exajoules of energy humanity consumes – will involve not only adding massive new infrastructure, but also regularly replacing worn out capacity.

As we look at indium, we will not assert that the wind industry is completely dependent on access to it.   It is always possible that replacements can be found for any material, as we will see, but we will nevertheless show that the game of “material musical chairs” if you will, is a profound challenge, and that often the hand waving and wishful thinking that surrounds issues in energy, especially where so called “renewable energy” is concerned, is at best glib, at worst misinformed to the point of delusion.    The fate of humanity is very much dependent on the decisions we will make in this century; possibly no generation has faced such a demand for clear thinking as the immediately coming generations will face, even as the current generation has failed the future miserably.

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Sustaining the Wind Part 1 – Is So Called “Renewable Energy” the Same as “Sustainable Energy?”

What follows on this blog over the next few weeks will be a series of five important essays on sustainable energy, by David Jones (who also blogs as NNadir on Daily Kos, bio here). A previous article on BNC by David, on world energy demand and uranium supply, can be read here.

Here is Part I.

A lanthanide processing facility in China.  From Lim, Nature 520, 426–427 (23 April 2015)[1] 

A group calling itself “The FS-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate and Sustainable Energy Finance,” working out of the Frankfurt School, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Program and the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Group has published study called “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment,[2] according to which, in the period between 2004 and 2014, the world expenditure on so called “renewable energy” amounted to 1.801 trillion dollars (US).  Of this, 711 billion dollars was applied to developing wind energy, an amount exceeded only by the investment in solar energy, which was 875.1 billion dollars in that same period.

The total “investment” in so called “renewable energy” in the last ten years is greater than the annual GDP (2013) of 179 of 192 nations as recorded by the World Bank[3], only 75 billion dollars smaller than the GDP of India, a nation estimated to contain a population of 1.396 billion human beings as of 2015, roughly 20% of the human race.[4]  For the amount of money spent on so called “renewable energy” in the last decade we could have written a check for about $1,200 dollars to every man, woman and child in India, thus almost doubling the per capita income[5] of that country.  It is roughly comparable to the 2013 GDP of Canada, a few hundred billion dollars larger than the annual 2013 GDP of Australia.

Here is a graphic from the text[6] of the FS-UNEP report showing the trends:

We shall look in this series at what we have to show for this “investment,” and then discuss what is and is not “sustainable energy.”  For the record, though we need not agree, what the Frankfurt School defines as “Sustainable Energy,” is pretty much what one expects these days.   The definition includes solar, wind, biofuels, small hydro, geothermal and marine energy.

The Frankfurt School does not define nuclear energy or “large hydro” as “sustainable energy.”

I agree, by the way, with the latter omission, since, on our path to “sustainable energy” as we have designed that path, a path more or less officially endorsed by the powers that be, we have basically killed or nearly killed every major river system on the planet, and are well on our way to destroying the major mountain glacier systems on which many of these already dying major rivers depend.

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Techno-fixes for climate change

Last week I presented at the Australian Academy of Science on ‘techno-fixes for climate change’. This talk was part of an AAS series organised by Bryan Gaensler called “Science Fiction becomes Science Fact“.

My talk was vodcast, and goes for 38 min, followed up by about 17 min of Q&A with the audience at the Shine Dome in Canberra (Australia). In it, I discuss climate scenarios, the energy problem, advanced nuclear energy, plasma-arc torches, geo-engineering, vertical farms, desalination, synthetic fuels, and much more. I also introduce the paradigm of ecomodernism.

I hope you enjoy it.

It was also covered in a report on BuzzFeed.

Making sense of the Tesla Triumvirate – solar, batteries and electric vehicles

Guest Post by Graham Palmer. Graham recently published the book “Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth” (“Springer Briefs in Energy” series).

The Tesla Powerwall is promised as the critical third key to unlocking the Tesla Triumvirate – solar, batteries and electric vehicles. The Powerwall provides an opportunity to look at the opportunities and weaknesses of distributed power, and examine the long-run sustainability of such a system. To do this, we can turn to life-cycle assessments and the field of Energy Return on Investment (EROI).

EROI is the ratio of how much energy is gained from an energy production process compared to how much of that energy is required to extract, grow, or get a new unit of energy. Advocates of EROI believe that it offers insights about energy transitions in ways that markets can not. The availability of surplus energy has been one of the main drivers of economic and social development since the industrial revolution.

At the start of the 1990’s, Pimentel launched a debate that was to be long running, on the effectiveness of corn ethanol production in the United States. Pimentel drew attention to the energy intensity of the ethanol life cycle, including nitrogen fertilizer, irrigation, embodied energy of machinery, drying, on-farm diesel, processing, etc. Although not settled decisively, there is a consensus that the EROI of US corn ethanol is below the minimum useful threshold. Brazilian ethanol seems to be better, and there is hope that second generation biofuels will be better again.

The relative fraction of residential energy end-use in Australia helps to give a sense of the scale between our direct household energy use, and the total energy consumption in Australia – according to the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (table 3.4), residential energy consumption made up 11% of total energy consumption, with electricity a little under half of that. As a community, the vast majority of our energy footprint is embedded in the goods, food, products, and services that we consume.

We can also apply EROI principles to electricity production. However electricity is only valuable within the context of a system and isolating the EROI of individual components is more challenging. We can, however apply life-cycle inventories to individual components, including solar, batteries, and electric vehicles, and see how they perform. Life-cycle assessments measure the lifetime environmental impacts of greenhouse emissions, embodied energy, ozone depletion, particulates, water and marine toxicity and eutrophication, and other effects.

The UK-based Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership compared a range of low emission vehicle options in the UK. This considered the full life-cycle of the vehicle including production of the vehicle with a driving range of 150,000km. The conventional vehicle was based on the VW Golf, and the electric vehicle was based on the Nissan Leaf.

Based on the current European grid, it concluded that EVs generally have lower life-cycle emissions than an equivalent petrol vehicle, but the outcome is dependent on the electricity grid and other factors. The report also projected the analysis out to 2030, assuming improvements in energy and vehicle technologies. For the ‘typical 2030’ scenario, the emission intensity of the UK and European grid was assumed to drop to between 0.287 and 0.352 kg CO2-e/kWh (around a third of Australia’s current emission intensity).

Figure 1 – lifetime greenhouse emission based on “typical 2030” scenario

Figure 1 – lifetime greenhouse emission based on “typical 2030” scenario

The most important outcome of these life cycle assessments is that the embodied energy of the battery and the emission intensity of the grid are the crucial determinants of the emission intensity of EVs. The report assumed a battery capacity of 24 kWh for the EV, or less than a third of the Tesla Model S battery.

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Complaint about misleading Helen Caldicott article in “The Saturday Paper”

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

Preamble Following a recent article by Helen Caldicott in The Saturday Paper I submitted the following complaint to The Australian Press Council. Unfortunately TSP isn’t a member of the Press Council. Nonetheless they were kind enough to review my complaint and informed me that op-ed articles are judged rather differently from news reports and that even if TSP were a member, they would take no action. Given the high number of factually incorrect claims by Caldicott, I asked for an example of a false or misleading claim that would warrant Press Council action. None was offered. Accuracy features strongly in the Press Council General Principles, but where nothing is inaccurate enough to warrant censure, then it hardly matters what they claim to give a damn about.


Helen Caldicott is a well known ex-pat anti-nuclear activist. She recently (30/5) published an article in The Saturday Paper called “SA’s short-sighted view of uranium and nuclear options”. It’s some 1700 words long and a written in a gish-gallop debating style, packed full of technical jargon, sweeping and unsupported claims. (Editorial note: It was a similar performance by Dr Caldicott that turned George Monbiot’s opinion on nuclear around, as explained here and referenced in the blog post’s lead image above). It would have taken many thousands of words to respond to all of its claims, so rather than do that I wrote a 1300 word response which explains in lay language enough of the modern scientific picture of DNA damage and disease to explain why Caldicott’s three decades of predictions of nuclear catastrophe have failed dismally. I thought concentrating on explaining basic principles was preferable to a blow by blow rebutt al. That she is wrong matters less than understanding why.

Erik Jensen of The Saturday Paper rejected the piece saying they didn’t have space and suggested I submit a 100 word letter instead. I later found out that he had also rejected a response from Ben Heard who was named and subjected to an ill-informed hatchet job in the article. Ben subsequently gave up arguing with Erik who refused his reasonable requests for a proper response. Instead, Ben published a piece on his DecarboniseSA blog.

I decided instead to make a complaint to you, The Press Council, in the hope of getting an apology from The Saturday Paper both for publishing an article so clearly in violation of the Press Council General Principles; an article replete with misinformation and the omission of key facts. I also want TSP to publish a suitable response to Caldicott’s article; something of similar length.

I’d be happy, if required, to send the Press Council a copy of the original piece I sent TSP; but what follows is a more clinical blow by blow analysis of Caldicott’s misinformation and why it breaches Press Council Principles.

About the article itself

As I said above, dealing with a 1700 word article with sometimes multiple mistakes per sentence is a big job, so I’ll restrict myself to the most important examples which I believe violate the Press Council’s General Principles. Indented paragraphs are quotes from Caldicott’s article.

  • [MISLEADING: solar farms use far more concrete] Construction of the huge reactor complex adds substantially to global warming as it is largely made of concrete – a CO2-intensive product.

This is misleading because it omits a key fact, namely that nuclear power plants require considerably less concrete (and steel) per unit of energy than either a solar or wind farm.

For example comparing materials per megawatt hour for the Spanish Andasol I solar thermal farm in comparison to a Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactor shows the solar farm uses 15 times more concrete (and 75 times more steel, not to mention 2,530 times more land). And this is a generous comparison, because the reactor will last twice as long, so you’ll be building the solar farm twice.

  • [MISLEADING: irrelevant] …[a] 1000-megawatt reactor requires one million gallons of water a minute, for cooling.

Again misleading. Most nuclear reactors use water for cooling, just like all thermal power stations, whether they be coal, gas, biomass or solar thermal. Any power plant which heats water to drive a turbine is most efficiently designed using lots of water for cooling. But it isn’t strictly necessary, it’s just more efficient than air cooling. Typically, many nuclear plants are on the coast precisely to make use of the water because water cooling provides efficiency gains. You may not have this flexibility with coal or solar because the former need to be near mines and the latter need to be on cheap land, which isn’t normally coastal. The amount of water required has nothing to do with whether a plant is nuclear but on its thermal efficiency and the ambient temperature of the water. Continue reading