Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.
Uma, Tulsi and Devi live with James Higgins on over 40 acres of land in Big Island, Hawaii. When Deirdre Rooney and her daughter Camille Cadarette came visiting, they were intimidated on their first meet. “They are so big”, said Rooney about the “letting go” experience, but in the end, “It was really sweet and peaceful”. The three girls on the farm are cows on the pasture at Krishna Cow Sanctuary, Hawaii – home to 60 bovines. The human mother-daughter duo was among thousands of Americans who forked out USD 75 an hour to bond with these gentle giants, some weighing north of 2000 pounds. “The cows are willing to be hugged, even eager”, claimed NPR; sometimes “they’ll flop down on their sides and place the heads in the laps” of their suitor. Love don’t cost you a thing, a thing over USD 75 that is.
We have no information if Rooney and Cadarette rode an EV to visit the trio. Chances are they did, as befits a presumed green ethos. The sanctuary itself is run 100% on electricity from non-fossil fuel sources, majority comes from on-site solar panel arrays.
A typical EV carries a 1000-pound battery, roughly a third the weight of a standard family car. A representative 1000-lb battery contains 25 pounds of Lithium, 30 pounds of Cobalt, 60 pounds of Nickel 110 pounds of graphite and about 400 pounds of steel, aluminum an and various plastic components. Lithium brines typically contain less than 0.1% of the element; you need to use 25,000+ pounds of brine to get 25 pounds. Using industry average ore-grades and standard extraction technology, you get enough cobalt from 30,000 pounds of ore, enough nickel from 6000 pounds, enough graphite from 1000, and enough copper from another 25,000. All in, you need 90,000 pounds of ore to extract enough of only these five elements for a single EV car battery. Amount of materials (e.g., earth, sand) needed to be dug up to get the ore varies widely, from 3 tons of materials per 1 ton of ore to 20 tons or more. Which means, to make a single EV car battery you need to move between 200,000 pounds to 1,500,000 pounds of materials.
When we look at newer sources of power generation, a few comparisons stick out. To replace a single 100MW natural-gas-powered turbine – the size of a house, and powers 75,000 of them – with wind turbines, you will need 20 of them, occupying 10 square miles of land at industry safety standard, 30,000 tons of iron ore, 50,000 tons of concrete, and most importantly, 900 tons of non-recyclable plastics. If you want to use solar power, tonnage for glass, steel and plastics is 150% that of a wind-farm. Add batteries to the list – an industrial storage system sufficient for a 100MW generation needs an equivalent of 10,000 tons of the EV car batteries. Summing up, the World Bank study “The Growing Role of Minerals and Metals for a Low Carbon Future”, 2017, correctly observes that “technologies assumed to populate the clean energy shift … are in fact significantly more material intensive in their composition than current traditional fossil-fuel-based energy supply systems.” (Italics added).
We cannot forget, or ignore, the energy it takes to get these minerals nor can we ignore trash cleantech generates end of its life. For perspective, a family car weighs 10,000 times as a smartphone but consumes only 400 times as much energy to produce. Most remote mine sites use diesel or coal-fired plants for energy, which adds up for minerals with very low ore grades like lithium. In China alone, annual battery trash is expected to quadruple in 10 years [2020 to 2030] to a whopping 2 million tons per year. Decommissioning and trashing a single 100MW wind-farm is expected to produce more non-recyclable plastic waste than all plastic straws combined. Most of these are new and cumulatively minuscule as of today – for context, semiconductor grade silicone did not exist pre-digital age – though rapidly accumulating every passing year.
Valid questions about sourcing and dependencies linger. As of now US imports 90% of solar panels and has the capacity to produce no more than 10% of critical materials. Even for the domestically produced Tesla EV, all of its minerals come from outside. Today US is 100% reliant on non-domestic sources for 17 minerals and over 50% reliant on 29 widely used other minerals, with China dominating global production of at least 14 of them. 70% of world’s Cobalt comes from Congo and it is widely acknowledged that child labor are rampant there; mining protocols for copper, nickel and other rare earth elsewhere are marginally better. China dominates rare-earth production and has made it abundantly clear they want to use it a leverage in global strategy. The sad irony is that to be self-reliant on key minerals needed for our cleantech programs, we may end up desecrating nature precisely where we can least afford it in our homeland.
Should we just give up on dreams of cleantech? Unequivocally, no.
First, honing on the ecological footprints of cleantech machines as of today is a wrong starting point. Unlike traditional energy sources, cleantech is rapidly improving. As global automakers pivot toward EV – Audi, Volvo and even an American behemoth like Ford have announced target dates for writing epitaph of combustion engines for passenger cars – they are using their might to influence faster evolution. EV batteries with similar weight and ecological footprint now produce 30% more energy as compared to just five years back. Public outcry against sweatshops forced apparel manufacturers clean up sourcing, big tech are working together to exert control over working conditions at the mines, even if with baby steps. As importantly cleantech is now focusing on the other end of the value chain – after-life. New players are using robots for a job too dangerous for humans at a little incremental monetary cost, but with serious improvement in working conditions. Old-fashioned stockpiling of toxic electronic waste is not only passe but also economically ill-advised, especially so with the latest developments.
Second, even as cleantech is cleaning up their act, sourcing of fossil fuel is getting dirtier, both in public’s eyes and in reality. People everywhere are increasingly aware of its environmental cost, and are increasingly willing to account for it. Opening a single new oil well takes years of wildcatting that is no better than mining in remote and ecologically vulnerable landscapes. Fracking has earned an especially bad repute and it is not getting easier for them any time soon. Even automakers acknowledge combustion engine technology has reached its peak inefficiency and that EV is the way of the future. They are putting money where their mouth is, instead of pushing the envelope on a letter that is already post-dated. Ditto for power generation.
Third: the way to end dependency is not to avoid the energy source, but to develop domestic alternatives for the entire value chain. We did the same with petroleum and natural gas to the point that we are the largest producer. Accepted that we can not create new deposits of rare earth domestically, and that is where our vaunted innovativeness comes into play. If we cannot be self-reliant in playing the game as is, let us change the game – develop newer technologies that reduce dependence. Domestically, we may need to be open to mining in Alaskan permafrost and be serious about new discoveries in Texas. It is still too soon to call the game against us.
Lastly, we need be open to more nuclear power as a reliable energy source, already producing a fifth of the nation’s needs. It retains maximum capacity over 92% of the time (“capacity factor” of 92.5%) – an overwhelmingly positive testimony to its reliability (comparable figures for coal and hydro are in low 40%’s, natural gas at 57%, and solar below 25%). It is estimated that equivalent peak capacity solar farm may take 75 times as much space (wind farms 760 times) even if they will not do the job because of low capacity factor. Despite all the brouhaha about waste, all the nuclear waste US plants ever produced can fit into a single football field and have a depth of less than 10 yards. In comparison, in a single year US nuclear plants replace the equivalent of 100 million cars on the street (476 million tons of CO2).
One issue is safety, of course. A scrutiny of US nuclear power plant accidents highlights more myth than reality. If you ignore industrial accidents (e.g., falling through missing manhole cover, getting electrocuted in a misidentified power line) last time there was any fatality related to US nuclear generation was December 1986. During the same time every other power source had at least 25 deaths. Even the Three Mile Accident caused zero death and minimal health issues around the plant location. Nuclear energy has had the lowest cost in human lives these last four decades, at least in the US.
As we craft an “all-of-the-above” strategy for alternative energy source, nuclear energy must top our list. It is safe (despite fearmongering that has absolutely no connection to US experience), extremely reliable, and does not make us strategically dependent on autocratic regimes or nefarious labor practices abroad. Cleantech as-is extremely dirty and reeks of violation of human dignity at source. But cleantech does get a pass as it is rapidly improving. Let’s hope the confidence is not misplaced.
Cow-huggers need atom-splitters to survive – there’s no other way around it.