The short answer: No, not even close!
The nations of the world are all too aware of the need to phase out fossil fuels for two reasons. First, oil is a finite commodity. It will wear out over time. Second, emissions of fossil fuels like CO2 destroy the planet’s climate system.
However, a recent study puts a damper on the prospects of phasing out fossil fuels in favor of renewables. Specifically, a phase-out of fossil fuels by mid-century seems like an almost impossible Sisyphean task. These are amounts of minerals/metals contained in Mother Earth. There’s not enough.
Simon Michaux, PhD, Geological Survey Finland has done a detailed study of what is needed to phase out fossil fuels in favor of renewables, namely:
“The amount of metal needed to make a single generation of renewable technology units to replace fossil fuels is far greater than initially thought. Current mining production of these metals is not even close to meeting the current reported mineral reserves are also not sufficient. Of most concern is copper as one of the reported shortfalls. Exploration for more than the required volumes will be difficult, with this seminar addressing these issues. (Source: Simon P. Michaux, Associate Research Professor of Geometallurgy, Mineral Processing and Materials Research Unit, Geological Survey of Finland, August 18, 2022 – Seminar: What would it take to replace the existing fossil fuel system?)
The metals/minerals needed to supply the giga-factories producing renewable energy to power global economies when fossil fuels are phased out seems to be one of the greatest dilemmas of all time. There is not enough metal.
Michaux has researched and analyzed the current state of the car, truck, railroad, shipping and aviation internal combustion engine fleet for the United States, Europe and China, accessing to databases to collect information as a starting point for the study.
Michaux’s calculations for what is needed to phase out fossil fuels use a 2018 starting point with 84.5% of primary energy still based on fossil fuels and less than 1% of the world’s electric vehicle fleet. Therefore, the first generation of renewable energy is only coming now, which means that there will be no recycling of production materials for a while. Production will have to come from mining.
When Michaux presented background information to EU analysts, it came as a shock to them. Much to his dismay, they hadn’t put together the various mineral/metal data requirements to phase out fossil fuels replaced by renewables. They assumed, using rough estimates, that the metals would be available.
A key issue for realizing renewables is energy storage due to the impact of wind and solar intermittency, both of which are highly intermittent. Most studies assume that the gas will buffer the intermittence. Besides using a fossil fuel such as gas as a buffer, an adequate energy storage system to handle intermittency will require 30 times more material than electric vehicles need with current plans, which means that the scope is much greater than the current paradigm allows.
One factor that will influence the materials and systems used to build renewable energy is the fact that electric vehicles require a battery that is 3.2 times the mass of the equivalent of a hydrogen tank. Therefore, an analysis of electric vehicles versus hydrogen fuel cells indicates that it will be necessary to build the global fleet with electric vehicles for urban traffic and hydrogen fuel cells for all long-range vehicles like semi-trailers, rails and shipping.
All renewable energy construction requires 36,000 terawatt hours to operate, or 586,000 new medium-sized non-fossil fuel power plants. The current power plant fleet is only 46,000, which means that it will take 10 times the current number of power plants to be built.
The new annual energy capacity of 36,007.9 terawatt hours will supply (1) 29 million electric buses (2) 601.3 million electric commercial vans (3) 695.2 million electric passenger cars (4) 28.9 million H2-Cell trucks (5) 62 million electric motorcycles (6). Hydro will also have to be increased by 115% by 2050 and nuclear power will have to double. The biomass will remain the same. It is already limited. Geothermal triples.
Additionally, buffer systems are crucial to manage intermittency. For example, Hornsdale Power Reserve in Australia, which is an Elon Musk project with a capacity of 100 megawatts. The EU uses Hornsdale as a standard buffer system. Overall, 15,635,478 Hornsdale-type stations will need to be built across the planet and connected to the power grid just to meet a 4-week buffer system. That’s 30 times the capacity compared to the entire global car fleet. Therefore, the market for batteries is considerably larger than currently understood and considered in planning for a renewable economy.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has published a report on the amount of metal needed per unit to develop a renewable economy. As well as a study of what the market shares would look like in 2040 for batteries for light and heavy vehicles and energy storage at the global fleet level for solar panels in 2040 and hydrogen fuel cells, the trucks, freight locomotives, shipping, wind turbines and buffer energy storage.
The total number of metals required for one generation of technology to phase out fossil fuels is listed by Production required followed by Known reserves for all metals in tonnes, as follows:
Copper 4,575,523,674 against 880,000,000 – a serious deficit – reserves only cover 20% of needs.
Zinc 35,704,918 versus 250,000,000 – adequate reserves.
Manganese 227,889,504 vs 1,500,000,000 – adequate reserves
Nickel 940,578,114 against 95,000,000 – huge deficit – reserves 10% of needs.
Lithium 944,150,293 versus 95,000,000 = huge deficit – reserves 10% of needs.
Cobalt 218,396,990 vs. 7,600,000 – huge deficit – reserve 3.48% of requirement.
Graphite 8,973,640,257 vs. 320,000,000 = huge deficit – 3.57% requirement reserves.
Silicon (metallurgical) 49,571,460 – sufficient reserves
Silver 145,579 versus 530,000 – adequate reserves
Vanadium 681,865,986 vs. 24,000,000 = huge deficit -3.52% reserve needs
Zirconium 2,614,126 versus 70,000,000 – sufficient reserves.
Prior to 2020, the global system mined 700 million tons of copper throughout history. Going forward, the same 700 million tonnes will need to be extracted over the next 22 years, which is based on current economic growth rates without considering what is needed for renewable energy generation.
Current copper reserves are 880 million tons. But 4.5 billion tons of copper are needed to make a single generation of renewable technology. Hmm.
In addition, each renewable technology has a life cycle of 8 to 25 years. Thereafter, they must be taken out of service and replaced. Also, whether renewables are powerful enough and sustainable enough to power the next industrial age is an unanswered question.
THE PAST – “An industrial ecosystem of unprecedented size and complexity, which took more than a century to build with the support of the most calorie-dense cheap energy source the world has never known (petroleum) in abundant quantities, with readily available credit, and unlimited mineral resources. (Michaux)
THE PRESENT – “We are now looking to build an even more complex system with very expensive energy, a fragile financial system saturated with debt, not enough minerals, with an unprecedented number of human population, anchored in a deteriorating environment. ” (Michaux)
Current mineral reserves are insufficient for the production of metal resources to manufacture renewable energy technology generation, as current mining is not even close to meeting the projected demand for renewable technology generation.
Robert Hunziker is a writer from Los Angeles