Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2022. Robert Lyman’s bio can be read here.
Many industrialized countries have declared that their policy goal is to phase out the use of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) and to replace them with all-electric energy systems powered by renewable energy. Adding to the immensity of this challenge, many governments have declared that it must be achieved in almost all countries by 2050, just over 27 years from now. This is the so-called “decarbonization” or “net-zero” goal.
In late 2021, a group led by Simon Michaux of the Geological Survey of Finland produced a 1000-page “Assessment of the Extra Capacity Required of Alternative Energy Electrical Power Systems to Completely Replace Fossil Fuels” . The focus of the study is almost entirely on determining the magnitude of the physical material requirements of decarbonization. Here are some of the findings.
The global fleet of road vehicles in 2019 numbered about 1.416 billion. Of this, only 7.2 million were electric vehicles (EV). Thus, only 0.51% of the road vehicle fleet were EVs and 99.49% of the global fleet was “yet to be replaced”.
In 2018, 84.7% of the world’s primary energy consumption was met by fossil fuels, whereas renewables (solar, wind, geothermal and biofuels) accounted for only 4.05% and nuclear power 10.1%.
The total additional non-fossil fuel electrical power annual generating capacity that would be needed for complete global decarbonization is around 37,671 terawatt hours (TWh). An additional 221,594 new power plants would have to be constructed and commissioned to meet the power needs of a decarbonized world. To meet the power requirements of complete decarbonization, almost five times as many plants as those now in place today would have to be built, and all this would have to take place in 27 years.
Converting all current (i.e. 1.39 billion) short-range road vehicles to EVs would require the production of an additional 65.19 TWh of batteries (282.6 million tonnes of lithium-ion batteries), and an annual additional 6,158.4 TWh of electricity from the power grid to charge those batteries.
The 282.6 million tonnes of lithium just to power the 1.39 billion short-range road vehicles is beyond current global lithium reserves. Further, each of the 1.39 billion batteries would have a useful working life of only 8 to 10 years, according to International Energy Agency estimates. So, 8-10 years after manufacture, new replacement batteries would be required.
Then there is the issue of battery storage. The battery storage capacity to mitigate intermittent supply on a 24-hour basis would be 2.82 million tonnes. Much more would be needed to protect against seasonal shortfalls. The bulk storage capacity to give the world a four-week buffer (i.e. roughly half of what might be needed in much of the northern hemisphere) would be 573.4 TWh. So, a combined total of 2.78 billion tonnes of lithium would be needed to solve the problem of intermittency. That represents five times global nickel reserves, 11 times 2018 global cobalt reserves and four times global lithium reserves.
One scenario examined the feasibility of replacing all current uses of petroleum product fuels with biomass (i.e. bioethanol and biodiesel). The estimated arable land needed to produce all the biomass required in 2018 would be over 40 million square kilometers. This is more than three and a half times the existing world land use to grow crops. Obviously, there would be no land available to grow food.
The report adds valuable detail to our understanding of the feasibility of decarbonization within a few decades, although it stops short of acknowledging the obvious – decarbonization by 2050 is flat out impossible. In fact, full global decarbonization’s demands on the world’s mineral resources may be so immense that it is impossible in any time frame.