QUESTION FOR PRESIDENT BIDEN:

Feb 20, 2021 by

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Marvin L. Covault, Lt Gen US Army, retired

By: Marvin L. Covault, Lt Gen US Army, retired

QUESTION FOR PRESIDENT BIDEN: 

Does it make sense to spend billions of taxpayer dollars to artificially support an energy source that is so labor-intensive that it requires a workforce 40 times greater than that for natural gas?

BATTERY POWERED VEHICLES: The Green New Deal seeks to replace gas-guzzling vehicles with battery power to reduce hydro-carbon buildup. This is not a simple matter. Some factors impacting on this green issue:

Transportation (cars, trucks, planes, boats, trains) account for about 23% of greenhouse gas emissions. Switching to electric can make a big difference. There are about 1 billion vehicles in the world and only about 4.8 million (less than half of one percent) are electric There are about 280 million vehicles in the U.S. also with only about half of one percent electric. The point being, we have a long way to go to reach the Paris Agreement goal of, “limiting greenhouse gas emissions by 50 % by 2030”. How are we doing? To meet the Paris Agreement, we would need to swap out 25 million combustion vehicles for electric-powered ones each year 2010-2030. In 2019 about 1.5 million new electric vehicles were added to the worldwide fleet. 

What about coal-fired power plant emission reductions? With China and India bringing on a new coal-fired power plant every 6th day, 2010-2030, the Paris goal of 50% reduction will not be feasible. 

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.

CO2 emissions from vehicles are not just a U.S. problem. To achieve success all nations need to be involved To that point, there are about one billion vehicles in the world today. It would take 250 billion tons of materials to build a battery for every car, once. Currently, electric car battery life is seven to ten years and then we need to dig another 250 billion tons, and again and again. Is that feasible? By the way, replacing one vehicle battery-pack costs anywhere from $1000 to $6000. In years ahead when the demand for raw materials increases exponentially, who knows what the cost might be.

This means that any significant expansion of today’s modest level of green energy will create an unprecedented increase in global mining for needed minerals and dramatically increase U.S. imports and the vulnerability of America’s energy supply chain. How long will the supply of raw materials to make vehicle batteries last? Another piece of bad news; China dominates the world’s supply of rare metals.

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 diesel car, assuming an annual average mileage of 8100 miles.

Supply and demand: Increasingly high demand for vehicle batteries (90% of the lithium-ion battery market by 2025) and perhaps the diminishing supply of raw materials to make them, may drive up the price of electric vehicles to untenable levels.

An estimated 11 million tons of spent lithium-ion batteries will flood U.S. markets by 2025, without systems in place to handle them. Recycling lithium costs five times as much as extracting virgin material.  Therefore, currently, only 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled in Europe. 

To get an idea of the scale of mining for raw materials involved in replacing the world’s gasoline and diesel-fueled cars with electric vehicles we can take the example provided by Michael Kelly, Professor of Technology at the University of Cambridge. According to Professor Kelly, if all of the UK vehicle fleet is replaced with electronic vehicles, they would need the following materials: about twice the annual global production of cobalt; three-quarters of the world’s production of lithium carbonate; nearly the entire world production of neodymium; and more than half the world’s production of copper in 2018. And this is just for the UK.

Professor Kelly estimates that if we want the whole world to be transported by electric vehicles, the vast increases in the demand for the raw materials listed above would go far beyond known reserves.

The environmental and social impact of vastly-expanded mining for these materials, some of which are highly toxic when mined, transported, and processed, are inestimable. Will we be fighting wars over mining rights for raw materials?

Another question: how much power does it take on a continuous basis to recharge the batteries in 1 billion vehicles?

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS:

Disclaimer: There are a lot of numbers in this piece and I’m certain they are not all absolutely correct. There is a load of conflicting information to draw from on this subject. My intent was not to ensure every number would fact-check but to build the best possible picture of where we are, where we say we want to go and the likelihood of that being within the art of the possible. There is also some personal math at arriving at some of the numbers. My apologies if I miscounted all the zeros.

How many of the 195 signatories to the Paris Accords have the resources to do wind/solar/electric vehicles. I’m saying very few and the answer could be none of them. How many trillions of dollars can we continue to borrow?  Will we always be able to borrow another trillion? No. When will that day occur? Perhaps it is long before we can achieve our CO2 reduction goals.

No matter how many wind turbines and solar panels we build for the world, there will always be the need for substantial on-call backup around the world for when the sun doesn’t shine and/or the wind doesn’t blow. Right now, battery backup would fall woefully short and may never be a feasible alternative. The US. is successfully converting coal-fired production to clean-burning natural gas because we have the greatest supply of natural gas in the world which makes our backup doable, albeit very expensive.  What do the nations that have zero natural gas do?  

I am a proponent for wind, solar, electric vehicles and whatever science can come up with to produce power. What I am not for is false hope. I get frustrated with the “well, let’s get on with it and just hope for the best” crowd. 

Hope is not a process. False hope is demoralizing and destructive.

Our environment and the future of this planet are too important to be toyed with by political sound bites and unfathomable green fantasies. Viable long-range strategic planning begins at the end, that is, with a definition of the end-state. In planning jargon, end-state is the “where” of the who-what-when-where-why-and how questions; “Where” we want to go to prosper or must go to survive. Having done that, there must be a quiet period of contemplation when the powers that be look seriously at the problem, do some back-of-the-envelope work, and come to some conclusions about the viability of the end-state vs hallucination.  

Nuclear power plants:  France, generates over 70% of its electricity from nuclear reactors, the highest percentage in the world. By contrast, the U.S. generates only about 20% of our electricity from 94 nuclear reactors. Why should we do more? A nuclear plant’s total operating expenses are a third less than that of gas turbine and fossil fuel plants and it is clean energy. The U.S. has not brought a new nuclear plant online for over 30 years. Two new nuclear units in Georgia are due to begin operating in 2021 and 2022; their approval process began in 2004. Snail-paced government bureaucracies and environmentalists-generated delays in the courts are the overriding reasons why we don’t have more.  The environmentalists tie-up nuclear construction in the courts for years and years. The environmentalists can’t have it both ways, if they don’t want millions of tons of CO2 clogging up the atmosphere then they need to give a little on alternate power production capabilities.

Waste management has over 6000 of its 18,000 garbage collection trucks running on natural gas. The gas they use comes from the decomposition of trash in landfills and which has been turned into pipeline-quality natural gas. Great work by WM. There are about 130 million trucks in the U.S. and around 400 million worldwide. Why isn’t there an initiative to transition truck power over a period of years to natural gas which has a much lower carbon footprint? 

President Biden, please stop, damn it, just stop messing with U.S. energy independence. Until Biden shut down drilling on public lands, the U.S. has been the world’s largest producer of natural gas.

Prediction: The Paris Climate Accord’s goals will not be met for two reasons. Most of the countries can neither afford the infrastructure nor the import of the minerals necessary to make it happen. That leaves it up to the U.S. to bankroll saving the planet and we do not now have nor will we have in the future the wherewithal to do that.

I will leave you with this thought. As an out-spoken cynic when it comes to politicians, I believe we should not be captured by the one-liner political solutions. Remember that old saying, “For every complex problem there is a simple solution, and it is usually wrong”. The devil is in the details; see above.

Marvin L. Covault, Lt Gen US Army, retired, is the author of VISION TO EXECUTION, a book for leaders, a columnist for THE PILOT, a national award-winning local newspaper in Southern Pines, NC and the author of a blog, WeThePeopleSpeaking.com.

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