As the world dashes for energy that is not derived from burning fossil fuels, this brief section examines some of the issues to ask if we are really being as prudent as we think.
It will contain the following sections:
- Nuclear Power
- Wind, Solar and Tidal Power
- Heat Exchange Pumps
- Minerals for New Technologies
- Batteries for Electric Cars
- Viability of Energy Sources
- Carbon Capture
- Further Resources
- Site Index
This section is not directly relevant to medical science, but I thought that it was necessary to show the complexities and problems of the new technologies and trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. They are presented as the saving of the world, but they often leave much to be desired in terms of environmental effect and benefit. When anyone criticises the dire predictions about climate change they are often accused of being in the pay of the oil industry, but there is far more money involved in “green energy” and far more money to be made from it. There are many complexities which are not explained and are not appreciated. We need to be far more critical.
Regardless of the prophets of doom about global warming, we have finite resources of fossil fuels and they are in danger of exhaustion. Over the years the consumption of oil has risen unabated. This is not only from the developed world but the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are now leading the increasing demand. On the other hand, the world’s production of oil probably reached a peak around 2010, give or take a few years, and from there it will decline1(Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage by Kenneth Deffeyes.) although fracking may delay this significantly.2As Fracking Rises, Peak Oil Theory Slowly Dies However, we shall never see cheap oil again despite some dipping of prices in recent years. Britain’s own fossil fuel supply is very low3UK ‘needs more home-grown energy’ although we may get a significant amount from shale or this may be disappointing. However, following adverse publicity and a higher than expected tremor, during the 2019 general election campaign, the Conservatives banned fracking,a move which brought them in line with other parties.4Boris Johnson to ban fracking We need to look for alternative sources for electricity and more fuel-efficient cars. Reserves of coal and natural gas are also finite. Those who oppose fracking often say that we should be developing carbon-free forms of energy instead. That is a long-term objective but a change from reliance on oil and gas will not come swiftly. In the meantime, we can see the economic benefits of producing our own gas and oil or we can continue to rely on that nice Mr Putin. I wrote that before the events of 2021, when a Russian stranglehold on gas supplies to Europe caused considerable increases in prices, affecting both industrial production and domestic bills.
Bahrain has discovered the largest deposits of shale in the world5Bahrain hits (black) gold with biggest shale discovery in world and they are currently friendly, but the Middle East is always unstable.
This section will not consider hydroelectric power of geothermal as they do not contribute significantly to the energy market in Great Britain.
Shedding our reliance on fossil fuels is neither easy nor cheap. In the 1950s we thought that nuclear power would be such a cheap source of electricity that it would not be worth bothering to install meters. Nuclear power is not a cheap option because it demands so many precautions. It is more expensive that fossil fuel power but cheaper than wind power.6UK ‘need not fear electricity blackouts’ says ex-National Grid boss There is also the problem of disposing of spent fuel. In the 1950s it was assumed that technology would have mastered that problem by the time that the power stations were decommissioned. It was all done in a great hurry on the back of our nuclear weapons programme. Nuclear power really is very safe, but it has been given an unwarranted reputation for danger. It does not produce greenhouse gases. There have been few serious accidents. The Chernobyl disaster was due to unauthorised and irresponsible activity in an old and outdated power station.
The Fukushima incident in Japan followed a very severe earthquake but it was not the earthquake that caused the damage. It was the tsunami that followed. The wisdom of building nuclear power stations in areas that experience earthquakes and tsunamis is debatable. A power backup system to withstand even the Tsunami could have been included and this would have removed the problem. The radiation leak that followed will probably not cause a single death. Germany does not suffer from strong earthquakes or tsunamis. Its decision to phase out nuclear power is a reflection of the power of the Green Party in German politics and not a realistic assessment of risk. France produces 83% of its electricity from nuclear power and it has a very good safety record.
The “Holy Grail” of nuclear power is not nuclear fission as we have now with its problem of spent radioactive material but nuclear fusion.7Nuclear Fusion Fission is the splitting of an atom. Fusion is the joining of two atoms. If two atoms of deuterium (heavy hydrogen with a neutron as well as a proton in the nucleus) fuse to produce helium, a vast amount of energy is released. However, at present this can occur only at a very high temperature, as is found in the sun or when an atomic bomb explodes. In the latter case the conversion of deuterium to helium makes an atomic bomb into a hydrogen bomb. A great deal of work has been done to try to achieve nuclear fusion at a reasonably low temperature but so far it has been elusive. It is possible that we may have it sometime after 20308Nuclear fusion may be our great green hope but that prediction may be rather optimistic. If so that would be an enormous step, but we must not rely on technology that has not yet been developed.
The UK government has announced an investment of £200m to deliver electricity from a fusion reactor by 2040.9Nuclear fusion is ‘a question of when, not if’ If it is developed, it will be on the back of an enormous investment in the research and development, but whoever gets there first will patent it and sell to the rest of the world. In August 2021, BBC News announced that there had been major advances at the National Ignition Facility in the USA.10US lab stands on threshold of key nuclear fusion goal The process called inertial confinement fusion uses 192 very high power laser beams and they are directed at peppercorn-sized capsule containing deuterium and tritium. This compresses the fuel to 100 times the density of lead and heats it to 100 million degrees Celsius which is hotter than the centre of the sun and not really “cold fusion”. They are pleased because the energy released was about 70% of the energy put in. Until it becomes rather more than 100%, it is not a viable source of power.
Hydrogen comes in three isotopes. Ordinary hydrogen, by far the most common, has a single proton in its nucleus and an atomic weight of one. Deuterium has a proton and a neutron and an atomic weight of two. It is a stable isotope. Tritium has two neutrons along with one proton and an atomic weight of three. It is radioactive, with a half-life of about 12 years. It may seem that the logical way of fusion is for two deuterium atoms to fuse or perhaps a hydrogen and a tritium. Both would form helium which has two protons and two neutrons. However, it seems that in the research, the aim is to fuse a deuterium and tritium, forming helium and releasing a neutron. This fusion process gives out a vast amount of energy.
Wind, Solar and Tidal Power
Wind farms produce expensive electricity and offshore turbines are even more expensive. Fossil fuels produce the cheapest electricity. Wind power is getting cheaper, but it will continue to be more expensive in the foreseeable future, despite massive subsidies which must not be overlooked.
To replace a single conventional power station requires about 7,000 wind turbines. That takes a vast amount of space as they must not be put too close together because of wind turbulence. Hence the area required to replace a 1,000 megawatts or 1 gigawatt. conventional power station with wind turbines is 2,500 square kilometres. Imagine an area 50 kilometres by 50 kilometres covered with wind turbines. There is no agriculture, no housing and it is certainly not an area of natural beauty.
Furthermore, this assumes a constant wind at optimal speed. The capacity of a wind or solar generating system is often given. Capacity is output or electricity produced under optimum conditions, but the average output is about a quarter of this. The amount of electricity produced is dependent upon conditions rather than demand. If there is a high-pressure area over the country, there is little or no wind and so little or no electricity. If the wind is too strong, it is necessary to shut down the turbines to prevent damage although this is less of a problem with recent designs. There must be full ability to back up if wind power is not forthcoming. The natural variability of the wind means that there are surges or dips in power that can put the grid under considerable strain. The turbine blades are rather heavy and so have a great deal of momentum. This may help to buffer changes in wind speed. Solar power does not have such a buffer.
There is a limit to the total output from wind or solar powered electricity that the National Grid can accommodate because of the variable nature of the supply.11Balancing the energy network In 2019 a former director of National Grid said that the Government should impose limits on the construction of new wind and solar farms to help avoid a nationwide blackout.12Former National Grid director says ministers should impose limits new wind and solar farms to help avoid power cuts The article said that Britain will invest £110 billion in “decarbonising” the electricity system between 2012 and 2020. These “greener” sources of power will include wind turbines, solar photovoltaic and, potentially, nuclear power plants.
The technology of low carbon dioxide generating systems is improving. An article in The Times at the beginning of 2020 said that in the year just gone, zero carbon power provided more electricity than fossil fuels for the first time.13Winds of change usher in cleanest year on record Wind, solar, hydro-electric and nuclear power produced 48.5% of supplies for 2019 compared with 43% from gas or coal. Britain has more than 8,000 wind turbines onshore and more than 2,000 offshore. Together these supplied 18.6% of the country’s power for 2019, going just over the 15% mark. Britain’s solar panels, hydro-electric plants and other zero-carbon renewables made up about another 8% of supplies, while nuclear reactors, some of which were shut for safety checks, accounted for 16.8%. Gas plants were Britain’s single biggest power source, giving 38.4% of supplies, while coal, the most polluting fuel, produced only 2.1% of electricity needs. It is not just that coal produces more carbon dioxide per unit of power than other sources but it does contain impurities that contaminate the air. It has now been phased out.
National Grid will need to maintain reliable and secure power supplies. Because of the changes scheduled for 2020, the UK government has set aside over £30 billion to upgrade and extend the existing transmission networks. Usually an old power station is replaced by a new on the same site, but these new sources will require electricity to be distributed from totally different places. When a new power station is built it is often near the one it replaced. The Sizewell nuclear power stations in Suffolk have Sizewell A next to Sizewell B and Sizewell C will be alongside. Therefore, it is easy to connect to the National Grid. As well as the cost of building wind turbines which may be in areas of outstanding natural beauty or offshore, it is necessary to have the infrastructure to conduct the electricity for distribution
Solar power has improved considerably in recent decades, but the output depends on cloud cover and the height of the sun. Dips in output occur when a cloud passes over or surges when there is a gap in the clouds. They produce no electricity at night.
To compete with a large coal or nuclear power plant rated at around 2 gigawatts, would require perhaps a million solar roofs. Those comparisons assume that our solar and wind are producing maximum output. As we have seen, the average is about a quarter of this and is dependent on conditions. Even if solar cells are clean and efficient sources of power, they are inefficient uses of land. The huge solar farms which we now see, typically produce only about 20 megawatts or about 1% of the output of a large, 2 gigawatt coal or nuclear plant. The UK renewable company Ecotricity has estimated that it takes about 22,000 panels laid across a 12-hectare (30-acre) site to generate 4.2 megawatts of power, roughly as much as two large wind turbines and enough to power 1,200 homes.14Solar Cells
The UK has the second highest tides in the world, but tidal power has problems too. It is not constant. With a symmetrical tide, as found in most river estuaries around Great Britain, it takes six hours for the tide to flow and the same to ebb. A twelfth comes in during the first hour, two twelfths in the second hour, three twelfths in the third hour, the same in the fourth hour, two twelfths in the fifth hour and a twelfth in the sixth hour. It ebbs in the same way. Damming estuaries would also have significant effects on the local ecology. Where tried, this energy source has not been successful.
These renewable or, more accurately, unreliable energy sources need 100% capacity backup from reliable conventional sources. The backup power stations are unable to come in instantly from inactivity and so they have to be kept “spinning” so that they are ready to produce electricity almost immediately to meet any shortfall. This means that the savings in terms of fuel imported or carbon dioxide produced are much less than we are led to believe.
Consumers face rising bills as renewable sources are much more expensive than conventionally produced electricity. It is less reliable, and they have to pay a “green levy”. In the five years up to 2014 the price of electricity in the UK rose by 63%.15(Ian Palmer. Chapter 1, The science and politics of climate change in Climate Change the Facts, ed Alan Moran.) This pushed more people into fuel poverty defined as spending 10% or more of disposable income on fuel. Old people are dying as a result of this green policy. Prices could rise by another third by 2025 with the continued green policy.16Green policy to force up price cap on electricity If we rely on wind and solar power to a large extent, then in the winter, when days are short and a high pressure area over the country brings severe cold and hence little wind but high demand for energy, the lights will be out, the central heating will be off and we shall freeze. Furthermore, our economy which is highly dependent on computers, especially in financial services, will crash.
January 2017 was a cold month with high pressure causing little wind. Wind energy produced around 1% of electricity demand. The highest daily percentage of wind power in 2017 was over 20%. A major obstacle is to be able to store energy to use it later. That may be a small step nearer17Power shift brings energy market closer to holy grail (giant batteries) but I am sceptical. There have been suggestions of massive batteries or accumulators to store surplus electricity and to use it during periods of greater need. However, it is unwise to rely on a technology that has not yet been developed. It requires AC (alternating current) to be converted to DC (direct current) to store and then the DC has to be reconverted to AC for transmission and use.
In 2004 Denmark announced a halt to building more wind farms. It already had more than anywhere else in Europe and the most expensive electricity. Now Germany leads the way and it now has the most expensive electricity. In Germany, wind, solar power and biofuels provide electricity with a market value of €3 billion each year, but this demands a subsidy of €24 billion. A subsidy that is eight times the market value of the commodity defies credibility.18(Ian Palmer. Chapter 1, The science and politics of climate change in Climate Change the Facts, ed Alan Moran.)
According to an article in The Times at the end of 2019, the average family was paying 40% more for their gas and electricity than they were 5 years earlier.19Households hit by 40% fuel bill rise in five years Energy bills have increased, with households now paying an average of £1,813 a year. In 2015 the average dual fuel bill was £1,289. The average home is paying £107 more for energy than a year ago despite the introduction of the energy price cap. Some of this is due to the price of gas which is linked to oil but much is due “green initiatives” which produce expensive and unreliable electricity. This pushes more people into fuel poverty.
Bats are among the most highly protected species but few people know that wind turbines are deadly to them. Between 1,400 and 4,000 bats were recorded as killed during 2008 at the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center in West Virginia.20Why Bats Are Insanely Attracted To Wind Turbines? Bat mortality continues to be high both there and elsewhere in the world. More bats are killed by wind turbines than by any other man-made structures. Bats may be killed by direct impact but up to 50% of the dead bats around wind turbines are found with no visible sign of injury. The cause of death is believed to be decompression or barotrauma. Their lungs are large and pliable and rapid air pressure reduction near moving turbine blades causes their lungs to expand, with severe tissue damage. Barotrauma does not affect birds because they have compact, rigid lungs that do not expand so much. Many species of bats seem to be attracted to wind turbines by why is not properly understood.
Birds can also be killed by turbines, especially raptors. The number of golden eagles or bald eagles killed in the USA has caused political controversy with accusations of inflating figures. An automated system that scans the skies and can turn off a turbine if a bald or golden eagle is headed toward a deadly collision has been described.21System Can Shut Down Wind Turbines To Save Eagles I have seen no report of it being used on a regular basis. It seems very inconvenient for the power generators.
From time to time there are reports of whales dying in shallow water around the North Sea. Often they are thought to have been sick which is why they went where they would not normally go. The extent to which marine mammals and other aquatic species may be upset by the vibrations from wind farms or electromagnetic fields from the cables that bring the electricity to land, is uncertain. When looking for the evidence, it is often difficult to avoid sources with preconceived ideas.22Are wind turbines killing whales? Offshore wind farms are far from exonerated.
The United Kingdom has some of the highest tides in the world. This is a potential source of energy and, unlike wind or sun, tides are entirely predictable in terms of time and height, with perhaps a little variation for atmospheric pressure. However, as with other forms of renewable energy, they cannot be regulated to match demand.
Along the coast the tides are symmetrical, meaning that they come in and out over an equal time, in contrast to tides in rivers, and they follow the rule of twelfths. This means that one twelfth comes in over the first hour, two twelfths over the second hour, three twelfths over the third hour, the same again in the fourth hour, two twelfths in the fifth hour and one twelfths in the sixth hour. It then ebbs in a similar pattern.
Various techniques have been suggested to harness tidal power, including putting a barrage across big rivers such as the Severn estuary. This would be very expensive for the amount of power generated and it would have a significant effect on the ecosystem of the estuary.
A system that has been used around the Orkney Islands employs underwater turbines a little way off the coast. This would appear far less disruptive. The turbine are turned as the tide runs and as it reaches its high or low water peak, the turbines rotate and generate power again as the tide flows the other way. As with other offshore forms of generation, the electricity requires cables to take it to land.
Land that is devoted to growing crops for biofuels is land that is no longer used for growing crops to feed the world. The area needed to produce a significant amount of biofuel is considerable. EU policy has had an adverse effect on world food prices to the detriment of the poorest people. We may also find ourselves importing soya and palm oil from areas where tropical rain forests have been destroyed to turn them over to agriculture. Iceland, the supermarket not the country, has led the way and banned the use of palm oil in its own brand products.23Iceland stores ban palm oil from own food Furthermore, the energy required for farming biofuels, their conversion from plant substances to fuels and the distribution mean that more carbon dioxide is produced in manufacturing these products than they are alleged to save. Agriculture is highly dependent on fuels and it accounts for 22% of total human output of carbon dioxide.
The mighty Drax power station in Yorkshire, which used to burn 13½ million tonnes of coal a year, mostly from the now exhausted Selby super-pit, along with other formerly coal power stations, now burns wood chip from North America. The new move to wood chips is as flawed as biofuels.
Britain spends hundreds of millions of pounds subsidising power stations to burn American wood pellets that produce more carbon dioxide than the coal they replaced.24Woody Biomass for Power and Heat Impacts on the Global Climate Britain is by far the biggest importer of wood pellets for heat and power in Europe, shipping in 7.5 million tonnes in 2016, mostly from the USA and Canada. Felling trees and transporting wood across the Atlantic Ocean in large ships to feed power stations produces more greenhouse gases than much cheaper coal, according to the report. It blames the rush to meet EU renewable energy targets, which resulted in ministers making the false assumption that burning trees was carbon neutral.
Drax, Britain’s biggest power station, received more than £450 million in subsidies in 2015 for burning biomass, which was mostly American wood pellets. By 2020, the figure was around £500 million. The report says that the government’s assessment of the impact on the climate of switching from coal to wood pellets is flawed because it ignores emissions from burning pellets in power stations. The assessment counts only emissions from harvesting, processing and transporting wood pellets.25£450m lost over failed green power programme The production of a Terajoule of electricity from lignite coal produces 101,000kg of carbon dioxide compared with 98,3000 for anthracite, 56,100 for natural gas and 112,000 for wood.
The wood pellets burnt at Drax come mostly from the south-east United States, in a vast, highly mechanised operation. Lorries carry the wood to ports from where ships carry it across the Atlantic before it completes the journey across the UK to Drax at the rate of 14 trains a day.26Biomass: another renewables plan that’s gone up in smoke The Government had previously claimed that there were “no net emissions (of carbon dioxide) during production”. Like so much to do with alternative energy, there seems to be flawed and muddled thinking in an attempt to produce a fudge that will help hit targets.
This colossal wood-burning programme produces vast amounts of particulates or soot. This, along with the vogue for wood burners in homes, increases particles in the atmosphere and reduces air quality. This has a significant effect on health. There is much more on particles and air quality in Motor Vehicle Emissions, Air Pollution and Health.
Biofuels are not synonymous with biomass. Biomass is plant or animal material used for energy production as either electricity or heat, or in various industrial processes as raw material. It can be specifically grown for biofuel. It may be wood or forest residues, waste from food crops such as wheat straw, waste from horticulture, or from food processing. It includes manure, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus from animal farming, or even human waste from sewage plants. Growing plants for fuel has been discussed above. Using waste products is different and seems logical.
Burning hydrogen, whether as a source of heat or to power motor vehicles, seems attractice as hydrogen burns to water. 2H2 + O2 = 2H2O. However, we must ask where hydrogen comes from as it is not freely found in nature. In November 2020, the Government announced plans for five gigawatts of “low carbon” hydrogen production capacity by 2030 for industry, transport, power and homes as wellas banning the sale of new petrol or diesel cars from 2030.27Ban on new petrol and diesel cars in UK from 2030 under PM’s green plan
At present, most hydrogen is produced by a process called “steam methane reformation”. This produces hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is poisonous and presumably burned to give carbon dioxide as the process is endothermic, meaning that it requires energy or heat to drive it. This is a problem to anyone who is trying to avoid producing carbon dioxide by using hydrogen. There is also the matter of the energy that is put into the process to produce this reaction. Once again, we must think where things come from.
Using hydrogen for transport requires a different source of the hydrogen. There are several possibilities for generating hydrogen from various sources of energy. For example, hydrogen production from wind energy or solar radiation via electrolysis or from biogas via steam methane reforming are methods currently under discussion.28methane steam reforming It still looks very much as if hydrogen production on an industrial scale that will not involve the production of the greenhouse gases that hydrogen burning is supposed to avoid, will require considerably more development. It is unwise to base polices on the massive use of technologies that have not yet been developed.
The Orkney islands seem to be addressing the problem in an imaginative way. They have plenty of wind and an abundance of wind powered electricity. One of the problems of wind power is that sometimes there is plenty or even more than is needed and at other times there is not enough. When times are good, they use their surplus of electricity to power the electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen. Hydrogen may be a good source of energy for large goods vehicles or even shipping or it could be used to produce electricity when wind or sun are in short supply. Battery powered goods vehicles are a problem as the batteries are so heavy that it would significantly reduce the amount of goods that can be caried. There is no adequate way of storing electricity in enormous batteries. This would be an excellent way of storing surplus energy.
Heat Exchange Pumps
If gas and oil for heating houses are to be phased out, we need an alternative source of power. Making our homes and offices more energy efficient with better insulation and less heat loss is important, but we still need a source of heat.
Heat exchange pumps work on the same principle as refrigerators. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but it is transferred from one medium to another. If a gas is compressed it will get hotter. If it is decompressed it will cool. A pump compresses gas, it heats and the heat is carried away. It is then decompressed and it cools. This can be used to cool a refrigerator or to heat a house. Heat is simply transferred from one medium to another.
Heat is taken out of one source and put into another
Heat may be taken from the air or from the ground. From the air, it is called an air-source heat pump. From the ground it is called a ground-source heat pump in the UK or a geothermal heat pump in North America. There are also exhaust air heat pumps that extract heat from the exhaust air of a building and require mechanical ventilation. They may transfer the heat to intake air or they can transfer heat to a heating circuit that includes a tank of domestic hot water. It is not normally possible to raise the temperature of water above 50oC by this method but this is sufficient for most domestic needs.
All this requires pumps and pumps require electricity. Enthusiasts insist that a “renewable” (unreliable) source of electricity should be used.
The Government may wish to see such systems installed in every home but there is a major problem. A gas boiler may be installed for as little as £1,000. The capital cost of a system for a heat pump is £9,000 to £15,000.29A home-heating revolution won’t come cheap A the water is not so hot, it will probably require an underfloor heating system or up to twice as much radiator capacity. A large hot water tank is required because heat pumps are slow. However, after the initial capital outlay, fuel bills will be significantly cheaper in subsequent years.
The manufacturers say that the cost of such installations will fall as volume increases, so perhaps we should wait for others to go first. In 2020, 27,000 heat pumps were installed in the UK, along with about 1.7 million gas boilers.30Gas boiler ban: how much does it cost to install a heat pump? It is still very much a minority market.
A very cost-efficient way of keeping our homes warm and reducing fuel bills, is to make sure that the building is well insulated. Current recommendation for loft insulation have risen to 25cm of cladding rather than 10cm. Prevent draughts. Double glazing has many advantages, including security. Cavity wall insulation represents a rather poor return on the capital required. Houses should still be adequately ventilated. I believe that far too many people like to keep their houses far too hot in winter. When it is cold outside, they expect to walk around indoors in T-shirts, with bare arms. Put on a jumper or a sweat-shirt and turn down the temperature. This will save considerably on heating and you can still be comfortable.
Minerals for New Technologies
Sometimes people who are promoting solar energy give the impression that the solar cells are just sandwiches of silicon.31Solar Cell This is untrue and like batteries for cars and mobile phones, there is a great deal more to them than that, especially with regard to the elements known as rare earths. Many of the references here are several years old but there is no reason to believe that the fundamental message is changed. A shortage of rare earth metals, used in everything from electric car batteries to solar panels to wind turbines, is hampering the growth of renewable energy technologies.32A Scarcity of Rare Metals Is Hindering Green Technologies The clue lies in the term rare earths. Research is underway to find alternatives to these critical elements or better ways to recycle them.
Thin, cheap solar panels need tellurium, which is three times as rare as gold. High-performance batteries need lithium, which is only easily extracted from briny pools in the Andes. Platinum is needed as a catalyst in fuel cells that turn hydrogen into energy but it comes almost exclusively from South Africa.
The gearbox of wind turbines often breaks down. It is possible to make wind turbines with no gearbox, but it needs large amount of rare earths. We could use next-generation fluorescent light bulbs that are twice as efficient as the current standard but the companies that produce them are unable to acquire enough rare earths to make the new bulbs. The current low-energy light bulbs use less power and last much longer than the old traditional bulbs, but they contain mercury and are a problem to recycle.
In 2011, the average price of rare earths rose by 750% in a year. This included terbium and europium which are used in fluorescent bulbs; and neodymium which is used in the powerful magnets that are essential in wind turbines and electric engines. China controlled 97% of global rare earth production, and it clamped down on trade. A solution was brokered, but the threat to supply continues. There are enormous problems with having one country having a near monopoly of important resources.
Despite the high cost and high demand of these metals that are essential for energy technologies, remarkably little is recycled. The UK produces 24.9kg of e-waste per person per year. In 2009, it was estimated that less than 1% of rare earth metals was recovered. Each year, 49 million tons of e-waste are produced from mobile phones to refrigerators. Of that, perhaps 10% is recycled. There is around 32 tons of gold in all the world’s mobile phones with a huge amount in urban landfills.
Circuit boards in electrical items contain tiny amounts of gold, silver, palladium and rare earth elements as well as copper, steel, aluminium and plastic, which can be recovered and turned back into new products. There is a lack of awareness of e-waste and its implications. The UK recycles 45% of its e-waste.33Valuable metals go to waste in a tsunami of discarded electronics
A Belgian company recycles 350,000 tons of e-waste a year, including photovoltaic cells. Extracting the metals is difficult as tiny amounts are incorporated into devices which are becoming increasingly more complex.
A major difficulty in recycling this material, is to get the battery or other metal-rich components out of the device or machine. This is a menial task but it is intricate and it is is often done by low-paid workers in China or Nigeria. In the Guiyu area of southern China, more than 100,000 people take apart e-waste, boiling up circuit boards to remove the plastic and then leaching the metals with acid. This is at great risk to the environment and themselves. Uncontrolled burning causes contaminated groundwater, and one study found elevated levels of lead in children living in Guiyu. Japan is at the forefront of efforts to automate these processes so they can be done economically and safely by machines.
Recycling is the best where demand is expected to level off in the long term. Demand for terbium and europium, for example, may decline as fluorescent bulbs are replaced with much smaller LEDs. For neodymium, this is not the only solution. The tiny earbuds for a smartphone require minute amounts of neodymium, but a high-performance wind turbine needs about two tons.
We also need to start thinking now about how we shall deal with recycling the waste from electric cars when they come to the end of their lives. If just 2% of the current global car fleet was electric, this would be 140 million vehicles. Landfill is not an option for this amount of waste as lithium batteries are flammable and contain toxic chemicals which would leach into the environment. Recycling batteries will avoid a huge burden on landfill and aid the supply of materials, such as cobalt and lithium.34Britain faces ‘waste battery mountain’ as electric car use surges
China currently dominates rare earth mining, but California and Australia have resources too. So too does Greenland and China has expressed interest in mining there. It is important that China is not allowed to monopolise these elements which are so important for future industrial production but also for defence technologies. Another approach is to find alternative materials that do not need so many critical elements.
It can be difficult to develop economies of scale when materials are used in such tiny amounts. In 2009, global demand for tellurium was just 200 metric tons. All of that was a by-product from copper or gold mining. Tellurium is extremely valuable at $145 per kilogram but the tiny amounts are hardly noticeable on the balance sheets of big mining companies.
Rare earth metals are used in everything from smart phones to wind turbines, and mining has long been dominated by China. As mining spreads to countries like Malaysia and Brazil, scientists warn of the dangers of the toxic and radioactive waste that this mining and processing generates.35Boom in Mining Rare Earths Poses Mounting Toxic Risks That is not to suggest that mining in China is pristine.
Another approach is to find alternative materials that do not require so many critical elements. This is not easy. The rare earths are a critical ingredient in magnets because they wrangle the strong but unruly magnetic properties of iron. There is no alternative element. Research efforts have attempted to make even stronger magnets without any rare earths but they have not been successful so far. For many minerals, there are no alternatives. There are few commercially viable minerals to replace copper wiring, for example.36Warning of shortage of essential minerals for laptops, cell phones, wiring
The same may be true for technology metals that could become essential in “green technologies” such as neodymium, terbium or iridium. These minerals are needed in small quantities, but they are indispensable to the technology. The scale seems small, the value is immense. Environmental costs and materials recycling options need to be considered, too.
If nothing changes, shrinking supply will raise prices. It also could lead to serious global challenges if essential resources that people have been so dependent on collapse. Even nuclear power, which is often considered a universal cure for global energy woes, suffers from mineral scarcity as all nuclear reactors require uranium which must be mined.
Remember that these metals are called rare earths for a reason. People have been so concerned about climate change that they have not given enough thought to what their solutions are doing for the planet, especially the parts that are not in their own back yard.
Batteries for Electric Cars
This section is identical to the one in Motor Vehicle Emissions, Air Pollution and Health
Whilst there is a definite “halo-effect” around driving electric cars, we need to look at the mining of the minerals for these batteries for all electric cars, hybrids and the components of mobile phones. Most of it comes from a mineral called coltan. Coltan is an abbreviation from columbite–tantalites and is also known as tantalite. The elements nobium and tantalum are extracted. The niobium-dominant mineral in coltan is columbite, so named after niobium’s original American name, columbium. The tantalum-dominant mineral is called tantalite. Around 70% of the world’s supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the poorest, most violent and corrupt places on Earth. It is a well-known irony that any country with “democratic” in its name is anything but democratic. Examples include the Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the old Democratic Republic of Germany (DDR or East Germany). Cambodia under the Kymer Rouge was called Democratic Kampuchea.
As with so much of Africa, the Chinese are eager to invest and acquire the minerals they need for their economy and exports. They pay scant attention to human rights, corruption and environmental concerns. The first two are why so many African leaders like to do business with the Chinese. Although the Chinese run enormous mining concerns, they are also eager to buy what is called “artisan” coltan, which means it is mined by local people with hand-tools with no regard for safety and often using child labour.37Congo’s miners dying to feed world’s hunger for electric cars.
Ravished landscape from the mining of coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo
There are also considerable environmental concerns about the effects of mining in the DRC with soil erosion, pollution of rivers and a substantial fall in the gorilla population in the region. Some are even hunted and eaten by hungry miners.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, has an article about coltan.38International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Five things you need to know about coltan
“Artisan” mining of coltan often involves child labour under very unpleasant conditions
There is far more to be considered with regard to the humanitarian and environmental impact of all-electric or hybrid cars as well as mobile phones. This has only scratched the surface, but I hope that it will make you stop and think about the impact of the technology. What might seem clean and wholesome for us, may have a very different impact in other parts of the world.
In August 2019, Donald Trump announced on Twitter, in his usual inimitable way, that he wanted to buy Greenland. That was for the USA, not himself. This was to gain access to minerals and to keep out China. Greenland is a self-governing territory under the Danish crown which won rights over its own mineral resources in a 2009 self-rule agreement. The Danish prime minister rebuffed him and he pulled out of a state visit to Denmark. An article in The Times called 39Why Donald Trump wants to buy Greenland: the hunt for elements to undermine China explains the importance of the rare minerals in many fields.
The oil economy has given a considerable amount of power to some very undesirable autocrats around the world. However, the corrupt despots who run many of the counties where the minerals for the new technologies are mined are yet more evil.40Despots are the winners in new energy race
As well as the batteries, it is worth mentioning the motors of electric cars as they can also contain rare earths. In 2021, a British company was seeking finance to develop a motor that requires steel rather than rare earths for the magnets in such motors.41British firm cracks electric car motor conundrum
Viability of Energy Sources
Coal fired power stations are due to be phased out by 2025 but there is a difference of opinion about whether this will make us vulnerable to energy shortages during times of great demand such as during a very cold spell.42Coal-fired plants ‘crucial’ to keep Britain in business
To be valuable, any source of power must exceed the energy that goes into its extraction, conversion and delivery to a consumer by a factor of seven or more. This is measured as EROEI (energy return on energy invested).43Nuclear fusion may be our great green hope Biofuel is a disastrous choice, requiring about as much tractor fuel to grow as is produced by the ethanol or biodiesel. Wind power has a low energy return because its vast infrastructure requires a great deal of energy to build and needs replacing roughly every 20 years. Backing up wind with batteries and other power stations reduces the whole system’s productivity. Geothermal too may struggle, because turning warm water into electricity entails waste. Solar power with battery storage also fails the EROEI test in most climates. Fossil fuels have amply repaid their energy cost so far, but the margin is falling as we seek gas and oil from tighter rocks and more remote regions. Nuclear fission passes the EROEI test but remains costly because of ornate regulation. The Government’s energy review of 2017 covered this.44Cost of energy The movement away from fossil fuels has substantially increased the price of electricity. The developed countries have managed to lead the new technologies, and this has further damaged the progress of developing countries.
Electric cars are a technology that has come a long way and they have an important future. When the car decelerates, some of the energy can be stored and used again rather than just dissipated as in conventional cars. At present they are much more expensive than conventional cars, the batteries can cause problems and any savings from decreased fuel consumption will take very many miles before the heavy investment in the car pays back. I am sure that it is the right way forward, but I would not buy one yet. Larger aircraft use less fuel per passenger mile.
Energy sources vary considerably in terms of economic viability
Carbon capture is often held up as a means of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but it is a technology that has not yet been developed. If humanity can control climate, we need to ask at what level we want it. Going back to before the Industrial Revolution is undesirable. Some countries would like a greater rise in temperatures than others.
There is a great deal in alternative energy that is far more complex and difficult than most people think. There is a vast amount of fudge with calculating the cost of energy and the savings in carbon dioxide emissions. Where a complete new infrastructure is required, there are enormous costs. These may include environmental costs and the production of much carbon dioxide in building and transport which is usually ignored in calculations. There is often a mentality of ticking boxes rather than a clear vision, seeing all aspects. What may seem like clean energy to the end-user may have created havoc on the way.
Carbon capture, better called carbon dioxide capture as the gas rather than carbon is the issue, has been postulated for many years as a way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from industry and from electricity generation. Sometimes the idea is to store it underground, sequestered from the atmosphere, but there are more imaginative and feasible alternative under consideration. Initially, the only technique I had seen involved capturing carbon dioxide with quicklime or calcium oxide or with slaked lime or calcium hydroxide. This produces calcium carbonate or chalk. CaO + CO2 = CaCo2 or Ca(OH)2 + CO2 = CaCO3. However, this begs the question of where the lime comes from and it is produced by heating calcium carbonate or chalk to a very high temperature, giving off carbon dioxide. This makes the whole process a pointless circle which uses much energy too.
Carbon dioxide capture of the exhaust gas from methane steam reformation to produce hydrogen can be used in urea and methanol production. Beyond two reports, there is little published research examining alternate liquid absorbents to capture carbon dioxide from hydrogen or chemical production.45Liquid absorbent-based post-combustion CO2 capture in industrial processes Once again we may find that politicians are boasting of technology that has not yet been developed.
Urea is found in a substance known by the trade name of Adblue. It is used by modern selective catalytic reduction (SCR) systems in diesel engines. It is often found in large goods or passenger carrying vehicles but also many modern diesel cars at the more prestigious end of the market. Adblue is 67.5% distilled water and 32.5% high grade urea, such as that used to manufacture plastics, cosmetic products or fertilisers.46What is Adblue? Urea used as a synthetic product is typically produced from natural gas although urea is an important constituent of urine. AdBlue is injected into the exhaust stream between the engine and the SCR catalyst. At high temperatures AdBlue turns into ammonia and carbon dioxide. When the nitrogen oxides react inside the catalyst with the ammonia, it forms nitrogen and water.
A great issue for improving the supply of food to the world is the reduction of waste. In the west many of us throw out vast amounts of food each day and much of that goes to landfill sites where it might produce methane. It is not normally recycled in compost to put nutrients back in the soil. Supermarkets, restaurants and food outlets are all guilty of simply throwing out food because it is past a nominal sell-by date or because too much has been prepared or ordered. Much more could be done to let the poor and homeless eat this food when it is still of good quality and not a threat to health.47(Tristram Stuart. Waste.) There is now a move in the right direction as a result of public pressure. Many people like to support organic food as they see it as sustainable farming. However, the book says that organic suppliers are probably the worst at wasting food.
In a couple of BBC television programmes in 2015 Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall noted that a third of food in the UK never gets eaten, yet 13 million people in this country are struggling to afford to eat. Much is rejected by supermarkets on cosmetic grounds as customers like perfectly shaped vegetables. Vast amounts get thrown out by consumers who have bought too much or who do not understand that “sell by” dates do not mean that food is dangerous to consume after it. It is a scandal.
The retail cost of avoidable food and drink waste from UK homes was around £9 per household per week or 14 per cent of the average £66 that households spend per week.48Digest of Waste and Resource Statistics
The world population has been growing exponentially and is now more than 7 billion. This means competition for resources, not least of which is water to drink and for crops. In 1798 the Reverend Thomas Malthus argued in his book “An essay on the principle of population” that if the population in an area was more than could be supported then it would be culled by war, pestilence of famine. A slightly simpler case along the same lines was made in the 4th century BC by Aristotle.49(The Politics by Aristotle translated by Sir Ernest Baker and RF Stalley.) The rapidly expanding world population needs resources. We have seen many pictures in the media of starving families with six or more children looking for food. Population control must be a major part of any policy. People who cannot feed themselves should not have six children.
Population control must be an integral part of planning for the future. The 7 billion people on the earth are likely to become many more by the end of the 21st century and resources for all will be a problem. The population is not growing evenly. For example, Germany has about 80 million people, about the same as Ethiopia but the population of Germany is estimated to fall whilst that of Ethiopia will experience a massive rise, perhaps to 120 million by the middle of the century. Germany is a rich and self-sufficient nation. Ethiopia has poverty, starvation and conflict. It is said that most of the population growth will occur in sub-Saharan Africa. An expanding population requires more resources including more energy, but it is the poorest areas where growth is fastest, and their carbon footprint is small. Nevertheless, they are an enormous problem for the future.
Simply tacking contraception on to foreign aid is not enough. Indeed, aid for family planning has fallen in recent years.50Population: the forgotten priority It requires a cultural change. Birth control is opposed by the Roman Catholic Church but also by some Moslem groups, especially the more extreme. Having a large family is seen as an index of a man’s virility. In countries without a system of social security it is the insurance for old age. Asking a person to have fewer children is like asking a person to have a smaller pension fund. Large families were essential just to survive when infant and child mortality were high. If this is no longer the case the population will explode, and Malthus’ criteria will be met, and his predictions will become real.
Most of the rise of the world’s population will occur in
Why have aid donors shied away from promoting family planning? I wonder if they fear that it is seen as like the bad aspects of eugenics when those who did not fit into society’s concept of normal were sterilised or even killed. Does the possibility of political or religious conflict make them opt for softer or less controversial forms of aid? Family planning must be seen as benefiting the recipient. Getting contraception accepted is dependent upon the empowerment of women.51Population, gender and climate change In many poor societies their primary role is seen a just bearing children. Even just getting them to start having babies later will have some benefit. Education of women appears to be the greatest influence on uptake of contraception.52Education of just men has less impact but there is some. We need to educate both men and women in the imperatives of the modern world
- We need reliable sources of power at prices we can afford
- When examining new “green” technologies, we need to view the whole picture to see if they are really as wholesome as claimed
- We need to see waste as a scandal
- Contraception and education to enhance its uptake must be part of foreign aid
After many many decades of concern about the world’s rapidly expanding population, there is a sudden reversal that is not due to famine, plague or a nuclear holocaust. Analysis of the Global Burden of Disease Study found falling fertility rates mean that nearly every country could have a shrinking population by the end of the 21st century.53Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study. It requires an average reproduction rate of 2.1 children per couple to maintain stability. It has to be just over 2 because of childhood deaths. There are 23 nations, including Spain and Japan which are expected to see their populations halve by 2100. This has a major impact on the age profile of the population, with as many people turning 80 as there are being born. It is driven by more women in education and work, as well as greater access to contraception, leading to women choosing to have fewer children. This is not just in Europe but will be a truly global issue, with 183 of 195 countries having a fertility rate below the replacement level.
However, the great exception is in sub-Saharan Africa where the population is expected to treble in size to more than 3 billion people by 2100. Nigeria will have the second biggest population in the world at around 791 million. The inverted age structure will be a major problem with far fewer young people having to support far more old people. Old people do not usually work and they are much heavier users of medical and social services. It is a problem that Japan is seeing already, but it will get worse.
- World Nuclear Association. Nuclear Fusion Power
The UK is in a global race to secure the rare-earth elements that are crucial for fighter jets, wind turbines and electric cars amid fears that China could use its monopoly of them as a weapon.
- Britain on the offensive in race with China for crucial rare-earth minerals. The Times 5 April 2021.
A very authoritative source gives quite a high-powered review of the current position with regard to nuclear fusion
- Tristram Stuart. Waste. Penguin books 2009
With shortages, volatile prices and nearly one billion people hungry, the world has a food problem – or thinks it does. Farmers, manufacturers, supermarkets and consumers in North America and Europe discard up to half of their food– enough to feed all the world’s hungry at least three times over. Forests are destroyed and nearly one tenth of the West’s greenhouse gas emissions are released growing food that will never be eaten. While affluent nations throw away food through neglect, in the developing world crops rot because farmers lack the means to process, store and transport them to market.
- Alternative Energy
An interesting assessment of the various types of alternative energy but perhaps too optimistic about its potential
- World Population Review
Includes a list of countries, population and growth rate
- Move to net zero ‘inevitably means more mining’. Jonathan Amos science correspondent BBC 24 May 2021
Yhe environmental cost of “going green”
- More precious than gold: Why the metal palladium is soaring. BBC 20 January 2020
The demand for rare earths
- We can end China’s rare-mineral monopoly. Ed Conway. The Times 30 April 2021
China has been developing a near monopoly in rare minerals
- Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage by Kenneth Deffeyes. Princetown University Press 2001
- David Blackmon. As Fracking Rises, Peak Oil Theory Slowly Dies. Forbes. 16th July 2013
- BBC News. UK ‘needs more home-grown energy’. 16th May 2014
- Boris Johnson to ban fracking. The Times 2 November 2019
- Bahrain hits (black) gold with biggest shale discovery in world. The Times. 5th April 2018
- UK ‘need not fear electricity blackouts’ says ex-National Grid boss. BBC News 30 January 2017
- World Nuclear Association. Nuclear Fusion Power
- Nuclear fusion may be our great green hope. Matt Ridley. The Times. 19th March 2018
- Nuclear fusion is ‘a question of when, not if’. BBC 6 November 2019
- US lab stands on threshold of key nuclear fusion goal. BBC News 18 August 2021
- Balancing the energy network. Phil Lawton. Ingenia online Article – Issue 53, December 2012
- Former National Grid director says ministers should impose limits new wind and solar farms to help avoid power cuts. Sunday Telegraph 18 August 2019
- Winds of change usher in cleanest year on record. The Times 1 January 2020.
- Solar cells. Chris Woodford. Explain that stuff. Discussion of solar cells
- Ian Palmer. Chapter 1, The science and politics of climate change in Climate Change the Facts, ed Alan Moran. Stockade books 2015.
- Households hit by 40% fuel bill rise in five years. The Times 30 December 2019
- Green policy to force up price cap on electricity. The Times 16 April 2018
- Power shift brings energy market closer to holy grail (giant batteries) The Times 17th April 2018
- Ian Palmer. Chapter 1, The science and politics of climate change in Climate Change the Facts, ed Alan Moran. Stockade books 2015
- Why Bats Are Insanely Attracted To Wind Turbines? Electrical engineering portal. March 2013
- System Can Shut Down Wind Turbines To Save Eagles. Jeff Kart. Forbes Review. 7 June 2018.
- Are wind turbines killing whales? Paul Driessen. CFACT 4 March 2016
- Iceland stores ban palm oil from own food. The Times 11 April 2018
- Duncan Brack. Environment, Energy and Resources Department. Woody Biomass for Power and Heat Impacts on the Global Climate. February 2017
- £450m lost over failed green power programme. The Times 23 February 2013
- Biomass: another renewables plan that’s gone up in smoke. Dominic Lawson. The Sunday Times 27 May 2020.
- Ban on new petrol and diesel cars in UK from 2030 under PM’s green plan. BBC News 18 November 2020.
- Science Direct. Methane steam reforming and other techniques for industrial production of hydrogen.
- Gas boiler ban: how much does it cost to install a heat pump? Jayne Dowle. The Times 11 December 2020https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/gas-boiler-ban-how-much-does-it-cost-to-install-a-heat-pump-twp560sxf
- A home-heating revolution won’t come cheap. Matthew Parris. The Times 24 April 2021
- Solar Cell. How Products are made
- A Scarcity of Rare Metals Is Hindering Green Technologies. Nicola Jones. Yale environment. November 2013
- Valuable metals go to waste in a tsunami of discarded electronics. The Times 8 February 2020.
- Britain faces ‘waste battery mountain’ as electric car use surges. Daily Telegraph 8 November 2019.
- Boom in Mining Rare Earths Poses Mounting Toxic Risks. Mike Ives January 2013
- Warning of shortage of essential minerals for laptops, cell phones, wiring. Science Daily March 2017
- Congo’s miners dying to feed world’s hunger for electric cars. Sunday Times 10 March 2019
- International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Five things you need to know about coltan
- Why Donald Trump wants to buy Greenland: the hunt for elements to undermine China. The Times. 26 August 2019
- Despots are the winners in new energy race. Roger Boyes. The Times. 14 November 2018
- British firm cracks electric car motor conundrum. Sunday Telegraph 28 March 2021
- Coal-fired plants ‘crucial’ to keep Britain in business. The Times 19th March 2018
- Nuclear fusion may be our great green hope. Matt Ridley. The Times. 19th March 2018
- Cost of energy: independent review. Professor Dieter Helm
- Tristram Stuart. Waste. Penguin books 2009
- Science Direct Liquid absorbent-based post-combustion CO2 capture in industrial processes.
- Catalytic converters. Chris Woodford. Explain that stuff
- Digest of Waste and Resource Statistics – 2016 Edition (revised), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, March 2016
- The Politics by Aristotle translated by Sir Ernest Baker and RF Stalley. Oxford University Press 2009
- Coombs R. Population: the forgotten priority. BMJ 2009; 339:b3750
- Hardee K. Population, gender and climate change. BMJ 2009
- Population Reference Bureau. Is education the best contraceptive?
- Vollset SE, Goren E, Yuan CW, Cao J, Smith AE, Hsiao T. Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study. Lancet 2020 Jul 14;S0140-6736(20)30677-2. [full text]
This website is now completed, although I shall continue to do updates. The following list shows the sections or chapters. Just click on the topic in blue to go to that part of the site.