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“Rare Earths,” Electrification Mandates, and Energy Security (Part I)

From MasterResource

By Mark Krebs — January 11, 2023

“My major argument: any planned transition to an all-electric renewable energy monoculture is likely to fail, at least in America. That is mainly because peak winter heating requirements can greatly exceed peak summer cooling requirements by as much as 400 to 500 percent in cold climates and because the required minerals are severely limited.”

On August 27, 1997, the Cato Institute published “Renewable Energy: Not Cheap, Not ‘Green’,” written by Robert L. Bradley Jr. (A 58-page PDF of the study is available here and a 25th anniversary review here.)  Bradley’s piece focused on the many stark ecological tradeoffs of politically favored renewables, as well as the high cost/low value associated of dilute, intermittent sourcing. This post extends that thinking to the deep decarbonization/all-electrification government program.

Rare earth minerals, on which the forced transition to “clean energy” depends, are critically constrained by many of the same factors as fossil fuels. Supplies of these minerals are dominated by regimes with intent to cultivate and exploit our growing dependency on them. As these raw materials are extracted and the strategic dominance of China increases, prices will have a premium that will impact consumers. Finding and developing supply chain alternatives will also bring increased energy expenditures necessary to secure and process these rare earth minerals. This will decrease ostensible environmental benefits from “green energy.”

One new source of supplies for rare earth minerals and other strategic materials rapidly gaining interest is seabed mining. However, this may lead to a cure that is worse than the supposed disease of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). If so, the claimed “greenhouse gas” (GHG) reductions achievable through the coerced “transition” to “clean (renewable) energy” are, at a minimum, significantly decreased relative to the fossil fuels they aim to supplant.

The purpose of this two-part post is to revisit some of the physical realities associated with raw material acquisition for a centrally planned “clean” energy transition.  In short, the prospects are poor. “Betting the farm” on it happening as planned is problematic at best. However, before we get “into the weeds” of these problems, let’s briefly revisit the economics and physics challenging this transition to so-called “clean energy.”

Peak Heating Demand

My major argument: any planned transition to an all-electric renewable energy monoculture is likely to fail, at least in America. That is mainly because peak winter heating requirements can greatly exceed peak summer cooling requirements by as much as 400 to 500 percent in cold climates and because the required minerals are severely limited.

Regional weather differences are pictorially shown by National Centers for Environmental Information maps of Heating and Cooling Degree Days. But energy delivery systems must be sized for worst-case weather scenarios that don’t show up in averages.  A prime example of such worst-case scenarios are “polar vortex” events.

To get a basic appreciation of these issues (but not necessarily worst-cases), consider a house with:

  • a thermostat set at maintaining 80 deg. F in the summer with a worst-case peak summer temperature of 110 deg. F.

The resulting temperature differences between the inside and the outside are 80 deg F. in the winter and 30 deg. F in the summer. Dividing the temperature differences of 80 (winter) by 30 (summer) yields a ratio of 2.6 (2.6 times more energy for heating relative to cooling). Further increasing the ratio of winter heating loads versus summer are the utility planning needs for adequate safety margins, system redundancy, etc.

Most winter heating requirements in the U.S. are served by the direct use of fossil fuels (mainly natural gas) in furnaces and boilers. The Biden Administration has targeted for elimination these workhorses as part of the overall “transition” to an all-renewables future.  

Further consider the complications of serving two-to-three times the electric load with intermittent renewables that are inherently unreliable without some sort of back-up. How much, how long, what kind?

Some Background

To contractually guarantee availability, renewables may need to be backed-up, either by fossil-fueled generation and/or batteries. At a ratio of 1 kW of fossil-fueled power backup per kW of renewable generation, 2 to 3 times more capacity becomes 4 to 6 times. And this does not consider the additional electric generation requirements needed to simultaneously transition plan from fossil-fueled vehicles to electric, which could increase present electric power needs by at least 100%.

Some claim replacing the present US fleet with electric vehicles will require 2 to 3 times more generation.  Also note that batteries for EV’s will likely compete with stationary batteries for wind and solar back-up.  Such factors would increase battery costs.

Massive, but geographically dispersed, renewable generation will need equally massive investments in electric transmission and distribution systems. Additionally, such increasingly dispersed and intermittent renewable systems will become exponentially more difficult to manage, especially as traditional, dispatchable power systems decline.  (For more information about the complexity of adding renewables to the grid, see FERC orders reliability standards, registration requirements for wind, solar, storage to protect the grid.)

As for deciding what type of back-up, the cheapest form of readily dispatchable fossil-fueled back-up for renewables is typically natural-gas-fueled combustion turbines, coupled with heat recovery steam boilers powering steam turbines (aka., “combined-cycle” systems, abbreviated as NGCC). These are about 66% efficient in the newest applications. In comparison, natural gas-fueled residential furnaces can be 80 to 95% efficient.

However, standing in the way of combined-cycle backup systems is that electric utilities can be among the first curtailed from natural gas supplies during severe cold weather emergencies, simply because ordinary consumers are curtailed last. This problem can be overcome if electric utilities pay to reserve pipeline capacity or if consumers are weaned off the direct use of natural gas. The latter seems the direction that the Biden Administration’s electrification policies are headed. However, some maintain the Administration is aiming to eliminate gas generation as well. If so, the high performing NGCCs have no place at all.

Conversely, we can just chalk-up, as collateral damage in the war against carbon with hundreds of deaths here and there, now and then from freezing due to polar vortex events (like they did in Texas from the February 2021 Winter Storm Uri).

Batteries to the Rescue?

If battery back-up systems are the only type allowed (as environmentalists would like to dictate), consider that:

  • Wind droughts can last a week or more.
  • Sunlight upon photovoltaic systems can be blocked by snow and ice for as long as it takes for something to physically remove them.
  • volcanic eruptions and forest fires can and do limit incoming solar radiation for even longer periods.

How much time should battery back-up systems be needed for worst-case scenarios is equally debatable.  Some people maintain a week is adequate, whereas some argue planning for 3 weeks or more of renewable generation downtime. Professor Michaux’s (introduced shortly) is one those arguing for 3 weeks or more.

If the worst-case period is a week, that’s 168 hours.  Most battery storage systems are only rated for 4 hours of full load output before they need to be recharged. Thus, getting through just a week of renewable generation down-time with 4-hour rated battery modules indicates a need for 42 kW of batteries per kW of renewables (168/4), at a minimum.

These calculations make a BIG assumption: They assume that wind and/or solar generation has sufficient periods of excess capacity to keep the battery systems fully charged for when you need them.  All forms of electric generation have “capacity factors.”  Wind and solar capacity factors are in the range of 25% (or less).   Given there are 8,760 hours in a year, then you can only count on 2,190 hours (or less) of actual generation.  What happens if they don’t have enough time to generate and store their own battery back-up (e.g., reoccurring wind droughts)? You guessed it!  You’re still at risk for running out of electricity. 

Battery back-up systems also suffer from cold and hot weather extremes. Just read the owner’s manual that came with your cordless drill to verify this. So how to maintain adequate temperatures? Gas heat?

If sufficient technological breakthroughs occur to solve these battery physics problems, there are still major problems with securing the raw materials needed for this “transition.” Not the least of which is that China has largely monopolized most of these strategic materials. This is at least partly due to the over-regulation of mining in the U.S., which China is exploiting. But even China may have problems supplying these strategic materials over the long run, especially if the environmental impact costs are internalized (e.g., carbon import tariffs). 

Part II Tomorrow

——————————

Mark Krebs, a mechanical engineer and energy policy consultant, has been involved with energy efficiency design and program evaluation for more than thirty years. He has served as an expert witness in dozens of State energy efficiency proceedings, has been an advisor to DOE and has submitted scores of Federal energy-efficiency filings. His many MasterResource posts on natural gas vs. electricity and “Deep Decarbonization” federal policy can be found here. Mark’s first article was in Public Utilities Fortnightly, titled “It’s a War Out There: A Gas Man Questions Electric Efficiency” (December 1996). Recently retired from Spire Inc., Krebs has formed an energy policy consultancy (Gas Analytic & Advocacy Services) with other veteran energy analysts.

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HB
January 12, 2023 6:20 am

Again confusion between Kw and Kw h power output in kilo watts battery storage is in kilo watt hours

David Dibbell
Reply to  HB
January 12, 2023 7:05 am

The author is not confused. He states both a 4-hour typical duration and the rated output of the unit in kW. So a battery module rated at 1 kW typically stores 4 kWh.

MCourtney
January 12, 2023 6:21 am

There are far more Rare Earth Metals available if required. The geology is not so rare. Sweden has just found Europe’s largest known deposit. Cornwall has accidentally refined them in the tailings of tin and copper mines for centuries.

The reason we don’t have available Rare Earth Metals is that they have not been needed. Until recently.

Not saying there is enough to back up a first world country for a whole week on battery power. That has far more problems than just the availablity of Rare Earth Metals.
But the name is just a name. They are not that Rare.

Tim Gorman
Reply to  MCourtney
January 12, 2023 6:35 am

How much material must be processed to obtain these rare earth materials? This includes the dross as well as ore to be refined. Compare this with coal and natural gas.

I suspect nat gas will turn out to be the winner – big time. That means less environmental impact at the mining sites (or drilling sites for nat gas).

Somehow this never seems to get included in any impact statements. I’ve seen the clean up required for strip mining of coal first hand. Grew up in the area. Are the rare earths strip mined or deep mined like coal?

Peta of Newark
Reply to  MCourtney
January 12, 2023 7:20 am

The name ‘rare’ is describing their ‘localised abundance’ or perhaps ‘concentration’
Basically becaause they don’t get caught up in biological processes – these having the effect of concentrating them at certain places.
e.g. They don’t get used by trees and other plants so you won’t find them in coal or oil or in sedimentary shale rocks
Or like Gold, are fairly inactive chemically so don’t dissolve into water and get deposited in dried up lakes, salt flats or random holes in the ground- Lithium of course being the exact opposite.
So yes they are maybe vast tonnages of them but their abundance/concentration is ‘rare’ or strictly, Rarefied. As in the rarefied gases of the upper atmosphere.

Platinum was a love, from a discussion I got into recently about Hydrogen.
I asserted that Hydrogen was/is a joke, and a very bad one at that.
Anyway, a muppet came along to say that using Hydrogen in a fuel cell to power cars was a good way to go.
OK I said, asserting (without really knowing at the time) that there “wasn’t enough Platinum in the whole universe to make any significant number of cars”

Muppet came back to say that a fuel cell only needs 1mg of Platinum per square centimetre and in any case, it was and is perfectly recyclable
At which point, this being on MSN UK, the whole article disappeared.

So I went looking and seemingly there are 70,000 tonnes of ‘Platinum Group Metals’ on this Earth.
Platinum being one along with 5 others. So what, 11,000 tonnes of each
Then i discovers that a fuel cell big enough to make a car viable would contain between 35 and 70 grams of the stuff
(A catalytic converter, we all know and love, contains about 5grams)

I’m none too strong with decimal points sometimes but even I don’t see many cars with Hydrogen fuel cells pushing them along

Ben Vorlich
Reply to  Peta of Newark
January 12, 2023 10:36 am

The fact that one of the crimes of the moment is the theft of catalyct converters for their content of expensive metals.
The cost cost of anything reflects its rarity/desirability and or the energy used in its manufacture. In the case of platinum both rare and desirable.
So will stealing catalytic converters be replaced by stealing of Hydrogen Cells giving ten times the income per theft.
Despite introducing new laws to try and stop the stealing of metals like lead from church rooves the criminal groups seem to have no difficulty disposing of catalytic converters.

andersjoan
January 12, 2023 6:23 am

Andy Espersen:
NetZero is a physical impossibility. Physical impossibilities will not ever, cannot ever eventuate. PERIOD.

Consequently, any building of power stations based on renewable sources, or any subsidies of such, should be left to the private market to experiment with. And these experiments should be subject to firm regulations to protect the environment.

Last edited 26 days ago by andersjoan
strativarius
January 12, 2023 6:30 am

The most effective form of electrical back-up remains the Griff power cell. The Griff power cell is comprised of a bicycle with the rear wheel off the ground, powering a dynamo.

mkelly
Reply to  strativarius
January 12, 2023 6:50 am

It is unclear whether Griff knows how to pedal a bike.

michael hart
Reply to  mkelly
January 12, 2023 7:05 am

The hamsters will teach him. Eventually.

I’m sometimes glad to enjoy the British weather/climate. It doesn’t kill you so much in winter. Just miserable all summer.

strativarius
Reply to  mkelly
January 12, 2023 8:08 am

Really?

Griff has a servant for that

Mr.
Reply to  strativarius
January 12, 2023 8:33 am

I think Griff has admitted himself to a cult deprogramming centre.

Picked up the phone immediately upon opening his latest power bill.

abolition man
Reply to  Mr.
January 12, 2023 12:23 pm

Someone needs to do a wellness check!
He may have fallen into a catatonic state from being b!#$%slapped so often here at WUWT!

MarkW
Reply to  abolition man
January 12, 2023 1:49 pm

He made the claim that he wasn’t willing to give extra information when WUWT went to a registration system. Anthony wrote to him that the only new piece of information he needed to give was a password. Griff never responded.
I suspect he had been looking for a way to “gracefully” exit for a while, and registration was the excuse he found.

(Gracefull, in griff’s mind only)

May Contain Traces of Seafood
Reply to  strativarius
January 12, 2023 6:38 pm

I believe Griff once stated that he had a ‘Lord’ who lived in a local manor.

Maybe Griff is the servant?

I mean that is probably the better arrangement. Get paid. Covered by the various labour laws.

If Griff was still in a traditional feudal type deal he might suddenly find he is required to provided military service to his lord 90 days a year!

“Hail Griff! Grab ye pointe stick! We march on the dawn to once again ensure that France remains part of the English Crowne!! Ye!”

I mean poor Griff might get hurt doing that!

David Dibbell
January 12, 2023 7:08 am

Good post. It (universal electrification and intermittent sources of supply) won’t work now or any time soon. It will never ever work to power a modern industrial society. It will crush any country or state (e.g. NY where I live) that tries it.

Last edited 26 days ago by David Dibbell
Leo Smith
Reply to  David Dibbell
January 12, 2023 8:05 am

Removing redundant regulation from nuclear power plants (which dont require any rare earths beyond uranium) enables a cheap net zero electricity grid.
So that is not the problem.
The problem is all the other things we use fuel for that are not really amenable to electricity

  • Off grid power – transport and otherwise.
  • Metal smelting.
  • Fertiliser production.
  • Concrete manufacture.

…and so on.
Use of e.g. coal and gas as chemical reduvcing agens might be accomplished with hydrogen, produced electrolytically.
But as far as transport goes, I cant see anythung better than gasoline, diesel and kerosene. The challenge becomes making it efficiently without using fossil file at a sane cost.
The firs step is to remove all financial support from ruinables, and put it into nuclear power.
There is no sign of this happening, except a daily deluge of ‘aren’t renewables great’ coming from the renewable industries usual suspects and mouthpieces.

David Dibbell
Reply to  Leo Smith
January 12, 2023 9:05 am

Agreed!

AGW is Not Science
Reply to  David Dibbell
January 12, 2023 3:03 pm

Hochul makes me laugh (only because I’m not unfortunate enough to still live in the state she mismanages). She’s so worried about increasing the amount of housing – nobody will want to live in New York by the time she’s done!

ferdberple
January 12, 2023 7:58 am

Solar and wind only produce minimal excess energy compared to the energy required to build them. This is why solar and wind farms are not practical when used to produce more solar and wind farms. The rate of reproduction is much to low to replace fossil fuels for many decades to come.

Thus we cannot scale up solar and wind unless we also scale up our emissions. The exact opposite of what solar and wind are supposed to achieve.

AGW is Not Science
Reply to  ferdberple
January 12, 2023 5:31 pm

And since you can’t build windmills or solar panels without fossil fuels, it’s just a big circle jerk.

MarkW
January 12, 2023 8:16 am

When the thermostat is set at 80F and the outside temperature is 110F, there is a 30F difference.
When the thermostat is set at 70F and the outside temperature is -20F, there is a 90F difference.

Neither scenario is that unusual for a substantial portions of the US.
The other thing to remember is that the amount of energy radiated goes up at deltaT**4, so 3 times the temperature difference will increase the rate of energy loss by a factor of 81.

Beyond that, at those kinds of temperatures, heat pumps have long since given up. If you aren’t using gas, then you are relying on resistive heating.

Curious George
Reply to  MarkW
January 12, 2023 11:03 am

“deltaT**4” is irrelevant, and also incorrect.

mkelly
Reply to  MarkW
January 12, 2023 1:46 pm

Mark do this kelvin.

Leslie MacMillan
Reply to  MarkW
January 13, 2023 12:14 am

Black-body radiation is proportional to T(hot)^4 – T(cold)^4, which <> (T(hot)-T(cold))^4
Edit: T in Kelvins, or other absolute scale.

Last edited 25 days ago by Leslie MacMillan
Neo
January 12, 2023 8:45 am

Sweden’s iron-ore miner LKAB said Thursday it has identified “significant deposits” in Lapland of rare earth elements that are essential for the manufacture of smartphones, electric vehicles and wind turbines.
The government-owned company that mines iron ore at Kiruna, almost 1,000 kilometers (nearly 600 miles) north of Stockholm, said there are more than 1 million tons of rare earth oxides.

Boff Doff
Reply to  Neo
January 12, 2023 10:07 am

For every ton of rare earth oxide obtained there is 2,000 tons of toxic waste to deal with? Current demand is approx 300,000 tons without the growth mandated by the numpties. Good brainboxing.

AGW is Not Science
Reply to  Boff Doff
January 12, 2023 5:34 pm

And they want to insist nuclear can’t be scaled up because of the “waste problem.” Irony!

ResourceGuy
January 12, 2023 8:57 am

Not to worry. China will proceed with sea bed mining when it suits them and when they have the world’s largest navy and air force to protect their activities.

ResourceGuy
January 12, 2023 9:02 am

Remember that it takes a long run price signal to go look for things and increase the chances of finding something. In most authoritarian countries and asset seizure-prone countries, the price signal does not work very well.

This one might help though if the greens defeat enviros in the Arctic.

China note! EU-member Sweden locates rare earth deposits – ABC News (go.com)

Curious George
January 12, 2023 10:59 am

“To contractually guarantee availability, renewables may need to be backed-up”. That’s the poodle’s core. Contracts should be phrased that way – with an availability guaranteed by the supplier – but then no one would be building wind- or solar-farms. Government intervention at its worst.

alexbuch
January 12, 2023 12:42 pm

The author is analphabet.

  1. The battery capacity is measured in kWh, not in kW.
  2. Germany opened the first fabric (licensed by Chinese CATL) for Natrium-based batteries. These do NOT use any rare earths. Just sea salt.
  3. Sweden discovered a huge field of rare earths. It is the largest one on the European continent. Very useful for electric motors and generators.
B Zipperer
Reply to  alexbuch
January 12, 2023 1:58 pm

alexb
Re: #2 – how do these new batteries match-up with Lithium ion batteries for: charge density, temperature sensitivity, charge/discharge times, number of charge/discharge cycles without degradation, size, ease of manufacture, ease of recycling, cost, and propensity to catch fire? Note that Li batteries don’t do that well on the last five items.
Re: #3 – as mentioned above, rare earths are not really rare, but just hard to separate from the rest of the rocks and is environmentally very unfriendly. That’s why the developed world has let China process most of the world’s REMs.
So, how likely is it that Sweden will allow mining to occur?

btw The EIA says in the USA it takes, on average, 16 years for a mine to go from concept to first production [surviving all the permits, lawsuits & legal issues].

alexbuch
Reply to  B Zipperer
January 13, 2023 1:19 am

Re: #2 – how do these new batteries match-up with Lithium ion batteries for: charge density, temperature sensitivity, charge/discharge times, number of charge/discharge cycles without degradation, size, ease of manufacture, ease of recycling, cost, and propensity to catch fire?

Reply:
Charge density is 50% of Li. This is no problem for stationary energy storage.
temperature sensitivity is MUCH BETTER. 90% capacity at -35 C.
charge/discharge times: 80% charge in 15 minutes
number of charge/discharge cycles without degradation: >10k cycles
cost: right now 30% of Li per kWh
propensity to catch fire: zero. not flammable

It is a game changer.

P.S. ease of manufacture: CATL holds all patents and know how.

richardlyon
January 13, 2023 12:57 am

I’m a little confused about how as little as three weeks of battery storage might be required to smooth out seasonal variation in supply and generation deficit. I reran the numbers (see: LinkedIn) for the UK for 2022, and we would have needed 6 months of storage for a pure battery backed wind and solar generation system. Am I making some conceptual error? (Story tip)

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