Headlong Into Electrification
This is a guest post. Everything that follows is by Rick Mills and does not necessarily reflects my views.
I find the ideas presented by Mills to be well presented and worthy of consideration.
Damn the consequences, Rushing headlong into electrification, the West is replacing one energy master with another, says Rick Mills.
Emphasis in Italics Mine, Bolding His.
The United States and its allies, such as Canada, the UK, the European Union, Australia, Japan and South Korea, face a dilemma when it comes to the global electrification of the transportation system and the switch from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy.
On the one hand, we want everything to be clean, green and non-polluting, with COP26-inspired goals of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050; and several countries aiming to close the chapter on fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, including the United States which is seeking to make half of the country’s auto fleet electric by 2030.
Yet many of these same countries are continuing to go flat-out in their production of oil and natural gas — considered a bridge fuel between fossil fuels and renewables, wrongly imo, for environmental reasons — a/ because they want to be energy-independent; and b/ because they have to. Germany is a good example of a country that tried to switch too soon to renewable energy, retiring its nuclear and coal power plants, only to find that the wind and sun didn’t produce enough electricity. Germany is now having to rely on Russian natural gas and the burning of lignite coal to keep the lights on and homes/ businesses heated throughout the winter.
We all remember (well those that are old enough do) the long gas station lineups of the 1970s during the OPEC oil embargo. At that time, the US was almost 100% dependent on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states for its crude oil.
Well times have changed and the US is supposedly energy-independent — in September 2019 the United States exported 89,000 barrels per day more petroleum (crude oil and petroleum products) than it imported, the first month this happened since monthly records began in 1973.
Now the materials required for a modern economy are those needed for electrification and decarbonization — metals like lithium, graphite, nickel and cobalt for EV batteries; copper for wiring, motors and charging stations, as well as renewable energy systems; silver for solar cells, and rare earths like neodymium for wind turbines.
The problem is, getting to 100% renewables, if that is even possible (I’d say more like 40%, if we’re lucky) will require more metals than are currently available in the world’s mines. Shortages are forecasted by 2030 for cobalt, copper, lithium, natural graphite, nickel and rare earths. Moreover, getting those minerals in the amounts demanded means going to some environmentally unfriendly places, including Indonesia for sulfide nickel, the DRC for cobalt, and China for rare earths.
The irony is, the rush to “go green” carries with it the simple fact that the mining of this stuff is anything but. Yet because Western countries like Canada and the US haven’t bothered to develop their own mine to electric vehicle, or mine to renewable energy plant supply chains, they are dependent on imports. EVs and solar/wind sound green, but how green are they when the materials are being imported from places like Indonesia, which allows tailings to be dumped into the sea, and the extremely polluting HPAL method of separating laterite nickel into the end product used in batteries?
It all comes down to security of supply. Western countries don’t have it, because they haven’t bothered to mine, or refine, domestically and continue to rely on imports especially from China but also South Africa and Russia.
And we can’t forget fossil fuel dependency because many countries cannot, and will not, build the infrastructure needed to decarbonize/ electrify.
They will continue to require huge amounts of coal, oil and natural gas. Even Europe, supposedly on the leading edge of “green”, relies heavily on Russian gas, as we shall see below. Japan, which has no natural resources of its own, in 2020 imported the majority of its oil from Saudi Arabia. And Australia, despite being a mining powerhouse (coal, iron ore), will by 2030 be 100% reliant on imported petroleum, due to the ongoing closure of its refineries.
Our addiction to oil means that hybrid vehicles, obviously requiring gasoline, are expected to continue outpacing full electrics for years.
When it comes to energy, we have in effect replaced one master, Saudi Arabia which ruled the global oil markets for decades, with China, which “owns” the EV supply chain. And despite eco-dreams of killing off fossil fuels, they remain very much in the picture, with Russia lording power over European gas imports, for example, and Japan and Canada continuing to rely heavily on Middle Eastern oil.
Even if we wanted to reduce our dependence on these countries, the mining industry faces significant local opposition to mineral exploration, mining, processing and smelting. Ironically, the greens who require all these minerals, to go electric, are the same people opposing their extraction.
We don’t have the metals
The adage “if it can’t be grown it must be mined” serves as a reminder that electric vehicles, transitional energy, and a green economy start with metals. The supply chain for batteries, wind turbines, solar panels, electric motors, transmission lines, 5G — everything that is needed for a green economy — starts with metals and mining.
The fossil-fueled based transportation system needs to be electrified, and the switch must be made from oil, gas, and coal-powered power plants to those which run on solar, wind and thorium-produced nuclear energy. If we have any hope of cleaning up the planet, before the point of no return, a massive decarbonization needs to take place.
Commodities consultancy Wood Mackenzie said an investment of over $1 trillion will be required in key energy transition metals over the next 15 years, just to meet the growing needs of decarbonization.
Transportation makes up 28% of global emissions, so transitioning from gas-powered cars and trucks to plug-in vehicles is an important part of the plan to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.
Kozak and O’Keefe forecast EVs will make up about 15% of new car sales by 2025, doubling to 30%, or 30 million EVs, by 2030.
A green infrastructure and transportation spending push will mean a lot more metals will need to be mined, including lithium, nickel, and graphite for EV batteries; copper for electric vehicle wiring and renewable energy projects; silver for solar panels; rare earths for permanent magnets that go into EV motors and wind turbines; and silver/ tin for the hundreds of millions of solder points necessary in making the new electrified economy a reality.
In fact, battery/ energy metals demand is moving at such a break-neck speed, that supply will be extremely challenged to keep up. Without a major push by producers and junior miners to find and develop new mineral deposits, glaring supply deficits are going to beset the industry for some time.
According to a report by UBS, a deficit in nickel will come into play this year, for rare earths in 2022, for cobalt in 2023, and in 2024, for lithium and natural graphite.
Wind and solar energy do not happen without mining, and they take unbelievable amounts of metals. Just replacing the current amount of energy demanded by coal and natural gas, let alone inevitably higher figures in future, with solar and wind, we calculated it would take over 60,000 solar farms and more than 120,000 wind farms. In all it’s about a 450% increase in renewables.
Ain’t gonna happen, folks. We will run out of metals long before we reach that level of renewable energy capacity. In fact we would be surprised if we even make it to 40%. Without a concerted and global push to mine more, the prices of the required metals will keep climbing, crimping demand for them.
In Indonesia, nickel is produced from laterite ores using the environmentally damaging HPAL technique. The advantage of HPAL is its ability to process low-grade nickel laterite ores, to recover nickel and cobalt. However, HPAL employs sulfuric acid, and it comes with the cost, environmental impact and hassle of disposing the magnesium sulfate effluent waste. The Indonesian government only recently banned the practice of dumping tailings into the ocean for new smelting operations, and it isn’t yet a permanent ban.
Chinese nickel pig iron producers in Indonesia now are looking to make nickel matte, from which to turn laterite nickel into battery-grade nickel for EVs. The process however is highly energy-intensive and polluting, as well as far more costly than a nickel sulfide operation (up to $5,000 per tonne more). According to consultancy Wood Mackenzie, the extra pyrometallurgical step required to make battery-grade nickel from matte will add to the energy intensity of nickel pig iron (NPI) production, which is already the highest in the nickel industry. We are talking 40 to 90 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per tonne of nickel for NPI, versus under 40 CO2e/t for HPAL and less than 10 CO2e/t for traditional nickel sulfide processing.
What’s the point of making supposedly “green” battery components when the refining process is so dirty?
Mining practices in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have elevated the issue of “conflict minerals” to the public consciousness, with stories of armed groups operating cobalt mines dependent on child labor, as well as in Guinea, where riots have broken out over bauxite mining.
The cost of electrification/ decarbonization
To put it bluntly, ridding the planet of fossil fuel-generated power — coal, oil, and natural gas — is untenable. Not only are solar and wind inappropriate for base-load power, because their energy is intermittent, and must be stored in massive quantities, using battery technology that is still in development, they don’t have anywhere near the energy intensity provided by fossil fuels, or nuclear.
Driven by the need to decarbonize due to increasingly apparent climate change, governments around the world right now are choosing to de-invest from oil and gas, and instead are plowing funds into renewable energies even though they aren’t yet ready to take the place of standard fossil-fueled baseload power, i.e., coal and natural gas.
We have seen this foolish endeavor playing out in Europe, where natural gas prices are hitting records due to coal plants being shut down as well as nuclear plants shelved, such as in Germany and France. The skyrocketing cost of electricity is being borne by ordinary citizens who had no part in this dumb policy of “premature decarbonization”.
Oil, gas & hybrids
What happened in Europe is important for resource investors to understand, because it could exemplify what is coming to North America, if we continue this mad dash to decarbonize without respecting our ongoing dependence on oil and gas.
NDTV lays it out nicely in an article titled, ‘Europe Sleepwalked Into an Energy Crisis That Could Last Years’.
Starting with the observation that its natural gas stockpiles are running dangerously low, the article points out that Europe was blindsided by an energy crunch because it was unprepared.
Germany is one the world’s largest natural gas importers. Data from Rystad Energy shows that in 2019, the country shipped in 55.5 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia, 27 bcm from Norway and 23.4 bcm from the Netherlands.
So much for Germany’s “energiewende” (energy transition).
What’s wrong with importing gas from Russia? The report notes that Russia has a history of interrupting natural gas flows for political gain:
This ever-growing dependence on Russia makes the EU potentially vulnerable to natural gas supply disruptions that could result from geo-political events, such as Russian meddling in the former Soviet Bloc countries. In the past, Russia has punished European countries that were selling Russian gas to Ukraine by cutting off natural gas being delivered through both Nord Stream and an existing pipeline to the Ukraine.
For decades the United States imported more oil than it exported. It wasn’t until 2019 that US net imports of crude oil and finished products flipped from negative to positive, making the country energy-independent. That year, US oil production reached a record 12.2 million barrels per day. However in May 2020, the States was back to being a net oil importer, and it has oscillated since.
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2005, U.S. refineries relied heavily on foreign crude oil, importing a record volume of more than 10.1 million barrels per day (b/d). About 60% of the imported crude oil came from four countries: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, and each was responsible for between 12% and 16% of total U.S. crude oil imports that year. By 2019, U.S. crude oil import trading patterns had changed significantly. In total, U.S. crude oil imports have fallen sharply, but imports from Canada have risen steadily to 3.8 million b/d, more than twice the imports from Canada in 2005.
Exactly one year ago the US didn’t import any Saudi crude for the first time in 35 years. Bloomberg notes that 12 years prior, American refiners were routinely importing about 1 million barrels a day, the second-largest supplier to the U.S. after Canada and seen as a major security risk.
How did the US become energy-independent? It began hydraulic fracturing tight shale oil fields like the Permian, Eagle Ford, Marcellus and Bakken. Fracking may have pushed US oil production to a situation of energy independence, but it came at a huge environmental cost. Pumping a toxic mix of chemicals and proppants to liberate oil and gas from tightly packed rock layers requires huge amounts of water and has been known to seep into and pollute groundwater. Fracking also releases methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, with research indicating the US oil and gas industry emits 13 million tonnes of methane annually.
In sum, the the holy grail of US energy independence has only been achieved by sacrificing the environment; air and water pollution not only costs money, but the health of people and animals living next to wells, and sometimes, their lives.
At the end of the day we have to ask, “Is going green really worth it?” To determine that, we first need to check whether mining all of the metals required for electrification and decarbonization is actually green. Chinese rare earths, Indonesian nickel, Congolese cobalt, are anything but.
For many years the United States and its allies bought their oil and gas from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. In recent years that dependence has eased.
At AOTH we’ve been warning for a decade the dangers of relying on fracking for anything but short term energy dependence. “The decline rate of shale gas wells is very steep. A year after coming on-stream production can drop to 20-40 percent of the original level. If the best prospects were developed first, and they were, subsequent drilling will take place on increasingly less favourable prospects.”
“My thesis is that the importance of shale gas has been grossly overstated; the U.S. has nowhere close to a 100-year supply. This myth has been perpetuated by self-interested industry, media and politicians. Their mantra is that exploiting shale gas resources will promote untold economic growth, new jobs and lead us toward energy independence.“ Bill Powers, author ‘Cold, Hungry and in the Dark: Exploding the Natural Gas Supply Myth’ in a Energy Report interview.
“Each year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts production from the nation’s tight oil and gas plays — the hydrocarbon-rich formations targeted by the U.S. fracking industry. And each year, the EIA predicts rosy prospects for the nation’s oil and gas output. David Hughes carefully peered through the EIA’s forecasts, basin by basin, comparing the agency’s assumptions against the real-world drilling data that showed faltering productivity and fast declines from many shale wells. And he concluded that the EIA’s long-term oil and gas outlook suffers from an optimism bias so extreme that it borders on fibbing.” New Report Throws Doubt on Overly Optimistic Fracking Forecasts From U.S. Government,Clark Williams-Derry
But many Western nations remain under the thumb of oil oligarchs or sultans. Take Germany, which consumes the most natural gas of any EU country, the majority of which comes from Russia. 77% of natural gas exports from Russia’s Gazprom go to the EU. Of the over €286 billion worth of natural gas imported by the EU from Not Free countries between 2005 and 2019, almost €165.3 billion worth, or nearly 58%, came from Russia.
In a world that still runs on oil, how free are Western nations, when they depend on the good graces of places like Russia, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, for their oil and gas?
How free is the West when it must go cap and hand to China, for the new electrification/ decarbonization metals?
Consider: China rules the electric vehicle supply chain. It is also a major player in renewable energy markets (solar & wind), and is building the most new nuclear power plants of any country.
In the rush to electrify/ decarbonize, is the West not just substituting one energy tyrant for another? The world’s largest consumer of commodities already has a monopoly on rare earths mining/ processing, produces the most lithium and cobalt, and dominates the graphite market.
China controls about 85% of global cobalt supply, including an offtake agreement with Glencore, the largest producer of the mineral.
Beijing also appears to be locking up nickel supply, through investments in the leading producer, Indonesia. China is working with Indonesia to develop a huge facility for developing battery-grade nickel.
According to the International Energy Agency, China processes about 90% of the world’s rare earth elements, along with 50 to 70% of lithium and cobalt.
The United States is 100% import-reliant on 13 of the 35 critical minerals the Department of the Interior has classified. They include manganese, graphite and rare earths. According to Market Intelligence data, the majority of critical minerals imported during the second quarter of 2021 came from South Africa (41.4%), with 7.9% shipped from China.
“We are dependent upon different countries, most notably China, for a number of our critical mineral resources,” S&P Global quotes Abigail Wulf, director of critical minerals strategy for Securing America’s Future Energy, a group advocating for greater US energy independence.
As China’s fist tightens on the mining of critical and green economy metals, Western politicians like Justin Trudeau, Joe Biden and Germany’s (ex-Chancellor) Angela Merkel have supported green energy/ transportation at the expense of fossil fuels.
Germany is phasing out nuclear and coal-fired plants but has not yet achieved the renewable power capacity needed to replace shuttered power-generation facilities.
It needs Russian natural gas just to keep the lights on and buildings heated. The recent decision to shutter three of its six nuclear power plants in the middle of winter is foolish and cruel. What of the millions of Germans, and other Europeans unable to afford a quadrupling of power bills, that are being left in the dark to freeze?
Think about it. Without a workable plan to transition from fossil fuels to renewables, one that does not involve natural gas shipments from Russia, burning coal, or buying petroleum products from Saudi Arabia (like Canada and Japan), and without a concerted push to mine and explore for minerals within its own borders, the West is literally giving away its energy security to two countries: China and Russia.
They must be laughing at our stupidity.
Richard (Rick) Mills
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That was a condensed excerpt from an even longer post by Mills. Inquiring minds may wish to give his article a closer look.
I do not expect this to change anyone's opinion of the question Mills asked "Is Going Green Really Worth It?"
Indeed, Mills did not directly answer the question himself.
However, Mills raises some very important questions about a headlong rush into allegedly green energy without having a plan as to what it really takes.
Green advocates and economic illiterates praise AOC, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, etc., but when did any of them address the questions Mills' raised?
When did they discuss real costs of their proposals?
The answer is never. And Germany is living proof right now of what happens.
50 Years of Dire Climate Forecasts and What Actually Happened
2014 John Kerry: "We have 500 days to Avoid Climate Chaos" discussed Sec of State John Kerry and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabious at a joint meeting.
I list 21 predictions and what actually happened.
Also, please recall my January 2019 post Ocasio-Cortez Says World Will End in 12 Years.
In case you haven't noticed, there's A Huge Disconnect Between Climate Rhetoric and Doing Anything About It
The reason is cost. People are waking up to the fact there are massive costs now to protect against alleged disaster decades from now.
To make the threat appear immediate, every storm, fire, hurricane, snowflake (and lack of snowflakes) is blamed on not doing enough.
Goals But No Plan
The unfortunate bottom line is we have forever changing goals but no real plans.
So even if you think we need to do something, how do we do it that does not use up all the metals and pollute the world getting them while driving up inflation in the process?
And how do we force China to stop using coal without a huge inflationary response?
Meanwhile, please note Germany's Surrender to the Greens Forced a Second Surrender to Russia.
Biden, AOC, and Warren seem hell bent on forcing the US to follow the path of Germany.
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