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Kano

Some inconvenient questions. Open letter to the politicians responsible for the Ecological Transition, in Spain and in Europe

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(First published at the author’s blog. Translated with permission by Amelia Burke / Fabricants de Futur.)

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am writing to you with the intention of raising a series of relevant questions regarding the current effort to undergo an Ecological Transition that must achieve the total decarbonization of Spain and Europe by 2050. With regard to what I have read on the subject, including the Climate Change and Energy Transition Law itself, there are certain obscure points in the announced plans that I think should be clarified, due to their great relevance.

Allow me to get straight to the point. These are the questions:

1.- We know that a large amount of critical material will be needed for the large-scale deployment of renewable energy systems intended to be implemented. We also know that there is not enough material to allow such deployment on a global scale. Do you contemplate an alternative plan, in case of materials being in short supply when the time comes? In short, is there a Plan B for the Energy Transition?

The issue of the shortage of critical materials for the renewable transition has been well known for quite some time. A few days ago, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report on these materials, in which some curious things were shown. The most prominent are shown in these graphs, especially the one on the right.

Mineral demand for clean energy technologies

As you can see, the annual extraction of lithium is expected to multiply by 42 by 2040; graphite by 25; cobalt by 21; nickel by 19 and rare earths by 7. Please note that the IEA is not saying what will happen: it is saying this is what needs to happen, which is very different. However, is that increase possible? The IEA itself has its doubts, and among its 6 recommendations (obviously to OECD countries) we find that recycling should be encouraged (complicated, because some of these materials are used in such a way that makes them difficult to recycle) and that “strategic reserves be set up to face possible supply interruptions.” In short: better hoard these materials now, lest they become unavailable later.

Returning to the question of whether such an increase is possible, there are many academics who are clear that it is not. Among them, Alicia Valero and Antonio Valero, from the University of Zaragoza, who have been studying the subject for many years. The image below is a slide from a recent presentation by Alicia Valero.

Source: Alicia Valero, CIRCE Institute.
Source: Alicia Valero, CIRCE Institute.

It turns out that the known reserves of many materials are less than the expected demand up until 2050. Please be aware that it includes other “more common” metals that are not in the IEA graph, such as silver, copper, lead, platinum and zinc, among others. Perhaps the IEA has now realised that there is a problem, however the fact is scientists have known about it for a long time. For example, there is a recent article from the Energy, Economics and Systems Dynamics Group of the University of Valladolid (co-authors of the MEDEAS report sponsored by the EU and currently the next more complete study LOCOMOTION, also organized by the EU at several European Research Centres. Translator’s note), that shows that it is not possible to pretend to maintain the current mobility model based on renewable sources and electric vehicles.

I do not want to discuss here whether or not there will be such a shortage, or even if renewables can really do everything that is said. The issue is, there is reasonable doubt as to whether the announced plans can be carried out, which leads to my question.

And the real question is if they have a Plan B. If they have an alternative, in case it fails. A safeguard. That is the question. Do they have it or not? Because if they don’t have it, the question that arises is different: Okay, and if this plan fails, then what? Shall we let everything go to hell? In short: is this a responsible management model if such an obvious risk is not taken into account?

Of course the temptation is to say that science and innovation will improve efficiency in the use of materials. To which I say: excuse me, but you can’t take that for granted, because if it doesn’t, we crash. Again, not a reasonable management model.

Perhaps the other temptation is to say that if there are problems we can slow down the energy transition until technology advances sufficiently (as if that were guaranteed), stretching the use of fossil fuels a little more thanks to a massive introduction of systems for capturing CO2 (assuming these ideas can actually be massively and effectively deployed). If you go that way, I will remind you of this graph from the last IEA report that tells us that, thanks to the divestment of oil companies since 2014, between now and 2025 oil production may fall by up to 50%.

Global oil demand by scenario and declines in supply

In fact, because of this decline, right now plastic is already scarce and more things are becoming scarcer every day: rolled steel, aluminum, copper, chips…

So is there a plan B? Because maybe we have to implement it urgently

2.- Even assuming that Spain manages to secure enough materials to make “its” transition, is this a good long-term bet, taking into account that 20-30 years from now the new renewable facilities will end their useful life and then it will be impossible to replace them?

Bear in mind that many materials are difficult to recycle because of the way they are used. In the highest performance electronics, the rare earths and metals such as gold and silver are used in very small amounts, typically in alloys with trace concentrations. The design of these circuits is not intended for reuse. Something similar happens to photovoltaic panels: the concentration of materials such as silver, and the way the panels are made, do not favor their recovery. In the case of wind turbines, reusing the copper and the magnetic or inductive core is much simpler; but in this case the problem is the degradation of metals over time, and also the difficulty of replacing the reinforced concrete (remember that the sand used to make cement is becoming scarce) and for the recycling of the blades (it is possible to do, but up till now largely what is being done is bury them).

So, does it make sense that we bet everything on a system that might only be used during those 20 or 30 years, and then leave society defenseless to manage what comes next? Will we go back to the wild card of “technological progress will solve it”, which we cannot be sure will happen? Are we going to risk condemning our children?

3.- The installation of renewable systems is possible by consuming large amounts of fossil fuels – in the extraction of materials, their preparation, transportation, installation, maintenance, etc. Renewable parks are not installed using renewable energy; and maybe doing that is not even possible. Have you not stopped to think that the proposed model can only work if there are fossil fuels?

This is one of the most serious problems of the proposed model: no one has seriously considered that the entire manufacturing, transport and deployment process uses only renewable energy. Is this even possible? Some authors, like Gail Tverberg, see modern renewable energy systems as mere extensions of fossil fuels: they can only provide energy if fossil fuels are available. One of the difficulties for closing the cycle of “renewable energy production – using it to generate more” is the complexity (and energy cost) of the processes, and the large amount of materials that are required. In a scenario of rapid decline in the amount of oil available, this would cause the renewable energy produced with this model to also decrease over a certain period of time. Therefore, we risk that in a short period of time this renewable model will stop working. Is that really what we want?

4.- The new model aims to replace fossil fuels with renewable electricity, but in most cases fossil fuels are not used electrically. Here there is a huge leap into the technological void, taking into account that 1) in Spain we already have much more installed capacity than is strictly necessary to guarantee what we consume; 2) in advanced countries, electricity represents just over 20% of final energy consumption and electrifying the remaining almost 80% seems difficult; 3) electricity consumption has fallen in Spain since 2008. Wouldn’t it make sense to focus efforts on how to take advantage of electricity, rather than on producing more? Or maybe look at how to produce other forms of energy, other than electricity, with renewables?

In Spain, the average power equivalent to electricity consumption in 2008 was 32 GW, and has decreased to 30 GW in 2019. That, with an installed power of 108 GW. Even with a certain degree of redundancy to take into account the plant factor, it is an excessive amount, which is now being increased by another 58 GW between now and 2030.

Yearly electricity generation in Spain.
Yearly electricity generation in Spain.

Not to mention the great difficulty of converting all energy consumption into 100% electricity, a problem that afflicts all advanced economies. In fact, what is usually the case is that electricity is a secondary energy that tends to follow the general consumption of energy: it rises if it rises and falls when it falls (although certainly not by the same percentage and often with a certain lag or delay, which can be years). So, electricity is a very specialized form of energy with high added value, but only good for certain uses.

Even without pretending that all energy is electric, trying to make at least all electricity 100% renewable is already a great challenge. In the first place, backup systems are needed to cover the intermittency of renewables (that the sun does not always shine, or that sometimes the wind does not blow). To make this backup renewable, one can resort to hydroelectricity, but this has a certain margin and cannot cover everything (the dammed water is also needed for other uses). Or one could take advantage of the accumulation of renewable surpluses when they are produced (e.g. using reverse pumping or green hydrogen). These are also limited, however. The other option to get backup electricity is long-distance interconnections, for example continental. On the scale of a continent intermittency can be compensated a lot, since at all times some side of Europe the wind will blow or the Sun shine (except at night). But here we run into the second problem of renewable electricity: the stability of the grid. The installation of many electricity generation systems, which continuously enter and leave the system and are distributed over a very wide territory, far from the consumption centres, generates instability of the network. It turns out that in Europe we use alternating current with a frequency of 50 cycles per second, but with so much intermittent and distributed generation, maintaining that frequency is today a hard task: in fact, on January 8, an instability originating in Croatia spread throughout Europe and was about to bring down the entire network. Making more and more renewable systems connected to the grid increases the risk of instability. It could be compensated by installing stabilization systems in the network, but nobody wants to face this extra cost, which would also have to grow in line with the number of hooked systems. Australia is considering banning more photovoltaic systems from being connected to the electricity grid.

The best thing would be to take advantage of electricity locally, never the less we still find ourselves with the problem of use for that almost 80% of non-electric uses. This is where we should seriously try to make a difference, but what is being done is symbolic. What is the point of endlessly repeating that we should have more electricity, taking into account all that has been said above? What is it going to achieve if there is no possible demand for so much?

5.- In order to try and cover with renewables that almost 80% of the final energy that is currently not electric, the big bet is on using hydrogen produced from renewable electricity, or green hydrogen. Hydrogen, however, is not a panacea and its original problems have not been solved. How is hydrogen going to solve anything now, with its known limitations?

A few weeks ago I attended a video conference on green hydrogen organized by the Club of Rome. In a moment of sincerity, one of the speakers said that some 20 years ago they had tried to introduce hydrogen as the fuel of the future and had failed; 10 years later it had been tried again and still it had not been successful; and that he hoped that now, the third time round, would be lucky. This reflection is quite interesting, because it demonstrates very crudely the problem we do not want to see. And why would a hydrogen-based energy solution have to work? We refuse to accept that it is a bad solution, yet we insist on bringing it out again and again. This, however, does not mean that it will become a good solution. We take it for granted that technological progress will overcome the hydrogen problems, but we do not understand that perhaps these problems cannot be overcome because they depend on the inviolable principles of Physics or Chemistry.

Let us take a look, once again, at the disadvantages of hydrogen:

  • Hydrogen is not an energy source: Currently most hydrogen is obtained through the chemical processing of natural gas or other hydrocarbons, with the release of carbon dioxide, but the objective is to switch to “green hydrogen”. This is obtained by passing an electric current through a bucket of water, which breaks the molecule of the liquid (electrolysis) and separates hydrogen from oxygen, without other emissions. The problem is that it needs to consume electricity in order to produce the hydrogen; hydrogen is a place to store energy, but not a source of energy. Technically it is what is called an energy vector.
  • The process performance is low: Let’s focus on green hydrogen. The best electrolysis plants achieve a performance of 70%, meaning 30% of the energy is lost and does not accumulate in the hydrogen molecules produced. However, this best performance only occurs under ideal conditions and with very sophisticated and expensive plants; in more realistic conditions the yield is around 50%, and the other 50% is simply lost.
  • The efficiency of hydrogen engines is low: If hydrogen is required for engines, it can be burned directly in a gasoline engine but then only 15% to 20% of the hydrogen energy would be used (that is, only between 7.5% and 10% of the initial electrical energy). Even by using the most efficient fuel cells (and making the engine more complex, because a battery is also required) the performance is around 50% (that is, only 25% of the initial electrical energy). By comparison, an electric motor has efficiencies that are consistently above 75% or 80%. It could be said that hydrogen is only required to produce heat (therefore, 50% efficiency of the initial electrical energy), especially industrial heat, but the truth is that hydrogen is also needed to replace diesel in the fleet of trucks and heavy machinery.
  • Hydrogen has to be stored at high pressure: Being a gas, in order to achieve an acceptable volume energy density hydrogen has to be contained at high pressure. This is generally 750 atmospheres (enormous: this is the pressure at a depth of 7,500 meters under the sea) in order to have an energy density that is only half that of natural gas at normal pressure. These high pressures imply, firstly, an effort to compress it (another additional energy expenditure), secondly, using containers with dense walls (more expensive) and thirdly, that it has to be refrigerated prior to compression to avoid the temperature rising too much (more energy expenditure). And not to mention the danger posed by a crack or a moderately strong impact on the tank.
  • Hydrogen escapes from containers: Being such a small molecule, hydrogen escapes easily from any container, even one with dense walls and especially well sealed. Losses of between 2 and 3% per day are normal, which implies that hydrogen has to be produced to be consumed within a few days.
  • Hydrogen corrodes steel: In carbon steel tanks and pipes, hydrogen forms hydrides which over time make them brittle until they break. The solution is to cover them with special films called liners, but which are not without their problems (they withstand thermal contrasts and mechanical stresses poorly) and which, for greater irony, are manufactured with oil.

In practice, the energy losses of converting electricity to hydrogen for any energy use are quite large, ranging from 50% for production of hydrogen to be burned immediately to losses of more than 95% if it has to be stored under pressure to be consumed a few days later in the engine of a lorry.

At a recent conference, I presented a few simple figures comparing the energy consumption of the transport sector in Europe with the production of renewable electrical energy that would be needed for it to run on hydrogen, assuming the highest and best performance (platinum fuel cells, hydrogen produced practically for consumption, neglecting the losses due to refrigeration and compression, etc.). The bottom line is that Europe should multiply its renewable electricity production by 3.5. In much more realistic conditions, it would not be surprising if this multiplication was by 4, 5 or an even higher factor; but in any case, the 3.5 multiplication is already a major challenge … and this would only be to maintain transport. And that challenge is probably impossible, because here we have not incorporated the limits of renewables, but they still exist.

In the case of Spain, it is not credible that we can produce here all the hydrogen that would be needed just to keep the entire transportation system up and running. And that’s not counting all the fuel costs implied by our lifestyle (for example, those freighters that arrive loaded with goods made in China).

Has anyone stopped to look at these problems carefully and objectively? Or have they just limited themselves to adding amounts in an Excel file, assuming that everything that is needed is going to appear, just because it is needed? Has anyone stopped to think that perhaps hydrogen does not give the amounts needed, not even close, to maintain the current state of affairs? Has anyone considered that perhaps it is not the solution?

6.- Given that the hydrogen that can be produced domestically cannot meet our needs, where are we going to get it from? Are we going to try to exploit the production of other countries, typically Africa?

In the end this is what we are talking about. Knowing that we will not be able to produce enough hydrogen to be able to keep everything going, given the low performance of the process and the limits to renewable production, the idea is surely to go and appropriate the hydrogen produced by others. That is why Germany is on the dam of the Inga River in the Congo. For this reason the hydrogen train, much more inefficient than the electric one, is now in vogue: to get hydrogen running from countries that have train tracks but no overhead power cables.

This model of colonial exploitation has many risks and also many weaknesses, apart from other questions of a moral nature. In addition, colonialism can be exercised on many levels. For example, the energy colonialism of the center against the periphery, within our own country [Spain]. It also occurs between countries, more specifically Germany against Spain.

This colonial model will probably be applied to us for the benefit of Germany; the German federal government already says that it expects the European countries with the greatest renewable potential to contribute their hydrogen. In other words, the renewable energy captured here would be converted into hydrogen, with huge losses, and then be transported on a hydrogen train, manufactured by Siemens, to Frankfort or Munich. Ladies and gentlemen, political representatives of Spain, have you thought about this? Are you sure that hydrogen is what we have to produce, if it is not going to provide for ourselves and on top of that, they want to take it away from us?

7.- Taking into account all the above, it is clear to me that we need alternative models for the use of renewable energy. We need many more local and efficient models that guarantee the wealth of the country. These models do exist, but they are not debated and they are not contemplated. Don’t you think that a little effort should be invested in seeing how much they have to offer?

At the beginning of the 20th century, textile colonies proliferated in Catalonia. The hydraulic force of the rivers was used to produce electricity for local consumption, and the mechanical force of the water served, in many cases, to directly drive the looms. The water force was used in many cases to directly drive the looms, giving a much better performance than putting an electric generator at one end and an electric motor at the other. With this system foundries and other industries were also maintained. In all cases they used energy more efficiently than using electricity and, more importantly, generated wealth and local employment. Mechanical energy is not like electrons or hydrogen: it cannot be exported over long distances. This energy from here stays here.

With all the knowledge and technical development over the last century, we could do just that and much better. Taking advantage of the Sun directly to heat, melt and transform. Taking advantage of the mechanical force of water and wind to move, work and forge. Taking advantage of plants, cultivated and wild, herbaceous and trees, to obtain reagents and materials. Also producing some electricity for when it is needed, but without obsessing about producing only electricity. Also producing some hydrogen for when it was needed, but without obsessing over keeping a huge fleet of trucks and heavy machinery going with it. Being more efficient. Reaching a better balance with nature, reducing our environmental impact, adapting to the rhythms of the planet, having the minimum dependency possible on materials that come from afar, with facilities on a more human dimension which are easier to repair and maintain, creating wealth and employment locally, fully decarbonizing our activity.

Why not?

I repeat: Why not?

For what reason is it neither considered, nor analyzed, nor even studied briefly? What is the point of engaging in a megalomaniacal, tremendously destructive and polluting model which, on top of that, is not even possible, when we could have a much more reasonable alternative which we do not deign to study?

Why not?

Why are we going to condemn ourselves to an unsustainable and impossible model that is going to fail, when there may be a viable and much less expensive alternative? Of course there will be many difficulties, but the biggest one right now is not even starting work on this possibility.

I ask you, and I will ask you again and again: Why not?


Thanking you in advance for your attention. I am waiting to hear your response to these pressing questions.

Best regards.

Illustration by Kano
Kano
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Senior Researcher at the CSIC. Source of information on peak oil since 2009. Main author of The Oil Crash, president of the Oil Crash Observatory and author of Petrocalipsis: crisis energética global y cómo (no) la vamos a solucionar (Alfabeto, 2020).

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