Managing Physically Imposed Global “de-growth”

 

REVISITING THERMODYNAMIC & MATERIAL LIMITS to 'Learning / Experience Curve' Models'

Predictions of Future Growth for 'Modern Renewables' & the role of Nuclear Energy

 

(6150 words)

 

Summary: This is an open letter to the Green Party of England & Wales detailing how and why its anti-scientific for the Party be anti-nuclear energy whilst claiming to “remain committed to genuinely sustainable and renewable sources of energy”. The scientific literature is full of 100% 'Modern Renewables' anti-nuclear energy schemes being exposed as nonsense “almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy1 despite failed law suits trying to discredit peer reviewed, published and cited papers repeatedly de-bunking such schemes on grounds they break the laws of physics. 2 3

 

The Party fails to account for fundamental limits 1. Energy Density and 2. Material Inputs impose on 'Modern Renewables' capacity to grow significantly beyond their current share of solar 1%, wind 2% (nuclear 4%) in the race to replace fossil fuels' 85% share of primary global energy supply. 4 Further additional secondary limits emerge: 3. Extractivisim; and 4. Reuse and Recycling. Next we explore impacts of these limits on 5. 'Learning / Experience curve' Models; and 6. Mainstream Economics. Then 7. Modern Monetary Theory; is integrated with  8. Nuclear: Lowest Hanging 'Thermodynamic Fruit'; and with 9. Politics; followed by 10. Discussion; to derive 11. Conclusions.

 

The Laws of Physics and Thermodynamics tell us: that flows of energy from the sun (and secondary flows induced & amplified by wind and water) are ten orders of magnitude times less energy dense (high entropy / disorder) than oil, or coal & wood and fifteen orders of magnitude less than uranium, rendering harvesting such dilute flows unsustainable due to the correspondingly orders of magnitude more materials, land and energy inputs needed for equivalent energy outputs from hydrocarbons or uranium.

 

Geologist, miners, and financial markets all tell us: existing mineral & material supplies are orders of magnitude too small and need decades to expand to support significant growth of 'Modern Renewables'. There's barely enough to go around for existing demands in non-energy industrial production sectors already. Further, remaining reserves and futures are rapidly hitting geopolitical supply limits too.

 

1. Comparative Energy Density / Entropy Limits: Let's start by comparing visually how many zeros (orders of magnitude) 5 separates different energy sources 6 7 8 (not precise number accuracy) in Joules / Cubic Meter 9 10 and Mega Joules / Kilogramme 11 :-

 

 
No matter what units or precision the same broad pattern emerges: Energy flows from the sun are so weak that harvesting their tiny and intermittent outputs and storing them in batteries requires orders of magnitude more and larger infrastructure requiring hundreds or thousands of times more input materials all fuelled by hydrocarbons emitting CO2 to get the same net energy output as uranium infrastructure yields. 12

 

Over and over again throughout human history this same pattern emerges: civilisations' grow and evolve not because primary energy sources become exhausted, we still have plenty of trees and coal in the ground. But by progressing step by step up the energy density ladder, not down it. Why is this? Because humans are driven to achieve increasing prosperity, a function of energy availability for material output over time. So we've developed more efficient technologies, to harness the fact that energy sources spontaneous flow from higher to lower energy density, by using more energy dense fuels, thereby increasing global complexity, enabling global average prosperity to increase.

 

 

That's why we progressed from animal power and wood fires, to fossil fuels and uranium, they all work by releasing their stored energy in the natural spontaneous direction of flow: a hot water bottle never spontaneously warms up, it always (frustratingly) only ever cools down. However, sun and wind energy harvesting machines have to work against energy / entropy's spontaneous direction of flow: they have to concentrate very dilute low energy density flows, (a cold water bottle) into high energy density electricity (to make a hot water bottle) which is do-able but extremely and prohibitively inefficient.

 

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) 2021 13 14 found the sun's orders of magnitude low energy density flows hitting the earth's surface, is the fundamental reason behind it reporting exactly the same as any 'disaggregated' EROEI (Energy Returned Over Energy Invested) 15 16 message would: the laws of physics dictate that sunlight, waves & wind require correspondingly orders of magnitude more massive harvesting machines than nuclear:-

 

• Wind & Solar need between 400 and 750 times More Land than Nuclear or Gas.

• Nuclear needs far Less Materials, Minerals, & Metals inputs.

• Nuclear energy has the Lowest Full Life-Cycle CO2 emissions of any electricity generating technology. Hinkley Point C 17 and Sizewell C, in the UK were again found to have a lifecycle impact of 5.5g CO2 per kWh.

Over the period 2020-2050, Nuclear Emissions will Decline by a larger percentage than any other electricity generating technology.

• Nuclear has second Lowest Life-Cycle Atrophying Emissions after Hydro.

Ionizing Radiation from Coal higher public & occupational exposure than Nuclear.

 

Today humans look down the slope from our fossil fuel hydrocarbon dominated position on of the energy density ladder, to tens of thousands of times less energy dense 'Modern Renewables' i.e. fantasy landscapes filled with industrial windmills, wave & tidal barriers, solar panel & biomass monoculture deserts, their intermittent energy stored in battery banks the size of cities connected with millions of tons of copper steel, aluminium and concrete all serviced and built using asphalt paved roads, diesel and natural gas furnaces.

 

Next up the ladder's slope in the other direction from hydrocarbons is uranium because its tens of thousands (Light Water Reactor) to millions (Fast Neutron Breeder Reactor) of times more energy dense than hydrocarbons and quadrillions of times more dense than sun energy flows. To get the same amount of energy from uranium requires thousands of times less input materials than hydrocarbons, and up to hundreds of thousands times less input materials than 'Modern Renewables'. (Note: For the same amount of energy supplied 'Modern Renewables' infrastructure build-out emits orders of magnitude more CO2 than the infrastructure build out legacy fossil fuels emitted. The majority of CO2 emitted by fossil fuel infrastructure is from burning the fuel itself, not what's embedded in its infrastructure materials and build-out processes).

 

High energy density explains why and how growth of global per capita wealth is positively correlated with fossil fuels' increasing share of global energy supply growing from c70% in 1950, increasing to 80% by 1980, and today standing at c85%. And low energy density is why it's taken 20 years for wind to grow to c2% of global energy, and solar to c1%, less than the growth of fossil fuels share of energy supply over that same period.

 

2. Material Inputs: The Green Party of England & Wales' call for “more ambition on renewables” but this is near impossible due to hitting material supply limits 18 as well as low energy density (as we leaned above) causing significantly increased CO2 emissions. The laws of physics dictate that opening and running new mines requires 1000's of horsepower diesel trucks & excavators. Electric vehicle's orders of magnitude lower energy density cannot replace depleting fossil fuels 19 in this role. Nor then transport process & refine metal and other material inputs. In other words 'Modern renewables' cannot power building themselves out, nor maintain themselves, nor electric grid balance, nor recycle, nor replace themselves after c25 year life cycles expires, without fossil fuels.

 

International Energy Agency chief Birol: “Supply and investment plans for many critical minerals fall well short of what is needed to support rapid deployment of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles […] Around 67 tons of copper can be found in a medium-sized offshore wind turbine. To extract this amount of copper, miners have to move almost 50,000 tons of earth and rock […] The ore is shredded, ground, watered and leached. Demand for critical raw materials will quadruple by 2040 for lithium its 42 times higher […] The bottom line: A Lot of Nature Destroyed for a Little bit of Green power.20

 

 
There's plenty of minerals still left in the ground, but the deposits that are easiest to extract have already been mined. For example “Over the past 15 years, the copper ore content in Chile’s mines has fallen by almost a third to 0.7 percent. Three generations ago, that figure was 2 to 3 percent. Today, the industry has to dig much deeper to extract the same quantities of precious metals than it did in the past – and it consumes correspondingly more electricity and fuel.” The same is true for all material inputs such as lithium, cobalt, aluminium, indium, tellurium, platinum, rare earth metals, and building sand. 21 22

 

The reserves of metals and ever increasing energy inputs to recover and use them, are however not the most pressing impeding factor; annual production is. But new mines take two decades or more to enter end use manufacturing supply chains. Global rare metal manufacture is not enough by orders of magnitude to meet the approaching demand.

 

 
Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management in 2018 found that production of the metals required for renewable energy sources (such as solar and wind power) need to increase twelvefold by 2050. And that wasn’t even taking into account the increase in demand we would see as population increases or the further elevated demand for these precious metals due to a boost in production in other electronics industries. 23

 

Natural History Museum calculated that the UK alone would need to consume just under two times the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, at least half of the world’s copper production, and three quarters the world’s lithium to fulfil its 'Net Zero Plans' (not including the LGV and HGV fleets) in an open letter to the Committee on Climate Change in 2019. 24

 

EU and US Department of Energy report that all the photovoltaic systems currently on the market are reliant on one or more raw materials classed ascritical” or “near critical” e.g. high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium, because of their natural scarcity or their recovery as minor-by-products of other commodities. With a capacity factor of only ~10%, the UK would require ~72GW of photovoltaic input to fuel the EV fleet; over five times the current installed global capacity. If CdTe-type photovoltaic power is used, the UK would have to consume on its own over “thirty years of current global annual tellurium supply.” Other published & peer reviewed researchers corroborate these findings. 25 26

 

Geological Survey of Finland published Mining of Minerals and Limits to Growth in 2021 with yet more research concluding the same mineral shortages story once again:Global reserves are not large enough to supply enough metals to build the renewable non-fossil fuels industrial system or satisfy long term demand in the current system. Mineral deposit discovery has been declining for many metals. The grade of processed ore for many of the industrial metals has been decreasing over time, resulting in declining mineral processing yield. The implication is increase in mining energy consumption per unit of metal.

 

Mining of minerals is intimately dependent on fossil fuel based energy supply. Like all other industrial activities, without energy, mining does not happen. It becomes highly relevant then to examine how mining ecosystem interacts with the energy ecosystem. This suggests that the mining industrial operations to meet metal demand for the future are unlikely to go as planned. This implies that the current Linear Economy system is seriously unbalanced and is not remotely sustainable. It is clear that society consumes more mineral resources each year. It is also clear that society does not really understand its dependency on minerals to function.”  27

 

As the energy transition supercycle gets closer, a major question is whether miners, financiers and governments can mobilize enough capital fast enough to bring on new supplies in line with demand.28 29

 

No doubt with all these limiting factors in mind, Russia’s Far-Eastern Autonomous region of Chukotka, rich in gold, copper and lithium, is fuelling its Arctic ambitions with nuclear power, planing to build 5 more floating nuclear power plants, all to fuel mining projects. 30

 

Meanwhile of course, other sectors, not just 'modern renewables' are affected by collapsing global supply of necessary technological metals and other mineral and material inputs, which further prevents efforts for sun energy flow harvesting machines to scale-up from c3% of global energy supply to replace fossil fuels' 85% share.

 

Solar and wind infrastructure is not so much harvesting ‘primary renewables’ as ‘secondary applications of primary fossil input’. 31 By far the lowest material demand way to replace fossil fuels is with even higher energy density nuclear that does work with entropy's spontaneous direction of flow providing an excellent source of industrial heat to efficiently and cleanly power chemical synthesis of hydrocarbons and hydrogen. 32

 

In other words, when calculated using whole system 'disaggregated' EROEI analysis 'Modern Renewables' are not “genuinely sustainable for two reasons 33 34 :-

 

  1. The mineral sector uses 11% of global energy, 35 which will rise with increased material inputs required to harvest low energy density fuel thereby emitting significantly more CO2 to build out than nuclear for the same electricity output; and

 

  1. As recently as the 1960s, in what we might call a “golden age” of prosperity growth, ECoE (Energy Cost of Energy) was well below 2%. British prosperity has been in decline ever since ECoE reached 3.6%, and an ECoE of 5.5% has been enough to push Western prosperity growth into reverse. Global prosperity stopped growing before ECoE hit 6%. ECoE at, say, 8% or so, that would not be anywhere near low enough. Even if 'Modern Renewables' could stabilise ECoE at, say, 8% – and that’s an assumption which owes much more to hope than calculation – it wouldn’t be low enough to enable prosperity to stabilise, let alone start to grow.

 

If a solution is to be sought on the supply side it will have to be in the form of breeder reactors. The demand side solution is a “de-growth” transition cutting per capita energy, resource and money costs to one-tenth their present typical values. 36

 

3. Extractivismo. And even if low energy density and mineral shortages on their own were were not show stoppers, how would we then avoid inevitable environmental and social destruction with yet more resource wars and corporate land thefts in the global south (Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, DRC, Bolivia, Chile, etc.) to get ever harder to extract minerals?

 

War on Want warn of “widespread environmental destruction and human rights abuses unleashed by the extraction of transition minerals – the raw materials needed for the production of renewable energy technologies” in their 2021 Material Transition report. 37 Political resistance to 'Extractivism' is rising, fighting against the implied orders of magnitude increase in mineral exploitation needed by more developed nations to lead proposed low energy density renewable plans to replace fossil fuels, which axiomatically equates to vast increases in local pollution with profits all mostly exported. 38 39

 

 

In light of the fact that China now supplies up to 80% of 'modern renewable' end use energy harvesting machines, their parts and critical metals, the key limits are: a) which countries will be able to get the critical metals they need, for uses other than building 'Modern Renewable' harvesting machines, since supply is rapidly exceeding demand? And b) will we continue to allow 'Extractivism' mining activities to increasingly wreck the environment and local people's health exploiting child labour leaving behind desolate heavily polluted moonscapes?

 

4. Reuse and Recycling. Possibilities for 'Modern Renewable' infrastructure will be very limited and extremely polluting plus there won't be enough decommissioned infrastructure to recycle for decades. The fatal blow for solar panels is that the most valuable materials are in such low concentrations they can barely be separated and therefore cannot be reused. Thermodynamics thus dictates processes will always remain very energy intensive. Primary and secondary solar energy flow harvesting machines will always remain entirely reliant on new metal and other materials inputs for their production. 40 41 42

 

5. 'Learning / Experience Curve' Models or 'Wright's law'. Over the last few decades exponential growth in the rate of solar panel and wind farm installations have been noted by researchers and analysts to now supply c1% and 2% respectively of global energy. These models try to predict the future based on past observations that the more someone performs a task and produces and sells more things, the better they get at it. Making and selling more things gets cheaper and cheaper and much more profitable. In turn we make more and sell more at a rate called the 'learning coefficient'. But these kinds of 'Learning / Experience curve' models suffer from significant limits that are too often overlooked to accurately predict the future.

 

For example in 1974 the 'Limits of the Learning Curve' authors conclude: “this recent impetus toward lower costs and higher volume is very fragile indeed.” If such exponential growth is to continue it will require all “six categories” of the 'Learning / Experience Curve' - “product, capital equipment and process technology, task characteristics and process structure, scale, material inputs, and labor” - to all simultaneously and continuously be working together. In other words “if any one of the necessary conditions is removed, a discontinuous return to higher costs may result.”  43 44

 

A 2018 literature review concludes “analysing past cost developments and projecting future cost developments, researchers should be aware that factors other than experience may have significant influence. It may be worthwhile trying to incorporate some of these additional factors into energy system models.45 Discontinuities to 'Experience / Learning Curve' models are so well known even Wikipedia notes: “key suppliers ... becomes the main cost driver for the product.” 46 Any future scale-up of 'Modern Renewables' won't be exponential, it'll be what mathematicians call an asymptote; improvements are subject to the law of diminishing returns where every incremental gain yields less progress than in the past. 47 48 This is already happening. 49