Let’s not base energy policy on assumptions

Richard H. Smith

Reading the  article “Sustainable Marblehead and Unitarian Church have a talk about protecting the planet” (Weekly News, November 18), I have concerns with some of the comments made by the people in the article.

The problem of energy and the environment is complex. But it seems like some already have solutions. They do not. This has little to do with whether one believes in man-made climate change or not. Eventually, the world will run out of inexpensive fossil fuels. Alternatives are needed in any case.

Currently, there is no realistic plan to replace fossil fuels without damaging our standard of living and the prosperity of our country. Some people may not care about that. I do and so would a lot of others if they knew how dangerous it is to rush to replace fossil fuels with wind, solar and batteries.

Let me explain.

The steps that the people in the article present are piecemeal. They make a lot of assumptions thinking they will work at scale.

By work, I mean replacing fossil fuels with alternatives that are affordable and reliable to preserve our standard of living. For example, now we have a supply chain for fossil fuels that gets material out of the ground, processed, and delivered. We have rarely questioned if we can fill up our gas tanks or turn up the thermostat to heat the home.

The supply chain is so efficient that a gallon of gasoline is far less expensive than a gallon of distilled water. Gasoline is about $3.40/gallon. A gallon of Poland Springs distilled water at Walmart is about $10/gallon.

 There is no such supply chain for alternatives to fossil fuels. No one asks if we have enough material resources to replace energy from fossil fuels. A battery for an electric vehicle (EV) requires anywhere from three to 12 minerals depending on the chemistry.

A single battery requires extracting 500,000 pounds of ore from the earth. All of these minerals require tons of diesel fuel to support processing into something useful. As of now, you can’t even make windmills or solar panels without fossil fuels. But the people quoted in the article appear to believe if we use windmills and solar panels we can get rid of fossil fuels. If we continue on this path of restricting supplies of fossil fuels and replacing them with current renewables, the results will be far worse than anything from climate change.

Add to that, there are nowhere near enough minerals and metals on earth to replace energy from fossil fuels under the current regime of wind and solar and electrification of everything. An excellent review of this dilemma  by Professor of Geometallurgy Simon Michaux can be found here: https://youtu.be/MBVmnKuBocc

To give you an example of the problem we are facing, consider the amount of copper needed. The known reserves of copper are only 19 percent of what’s needed to replace energy from fossil fuels.

For lithium, the reserves are only 2.3 percent of what is needed. One also has to consider how fast we can get stuff out of the ground and process it.

To produce the amount of copper required to replace energy from fossil fuels would take 189 years. For lithium, it would take 9920 years. Certainly, we can create new battery chemistries or improve mining and processing, but the gap is huge, And new technologies require innovation and development. Prior energy transitions required decades to put new energy sources in place at a scale required to improve efficiency, reduce cost and support a higher standard of living. And we are still using all those forms of energy, particularly wood and coal. 

There are other concerns that are particular for Marblehead. 

They are rather glib about changing the way you heat your home. It’s not like people can easily afford $40,000 to convert their heating source to heat pumps or mini splits. And a lot of people in town rent apartments. They have no control over their energy sources. And they can’t easily afford rent increases that landlords pass on to pay for changing a heat source or other energy-related improvements.

Many homes, especially in Old Town Historic District do not have a garage or off-street parking. How will they charge an EV? 

What will be required of Marblehead Municipal Electric to upgrade its grid to accept more EVs? What if 25 percent or 50 percent of vehicles are EVs?

Safety is also a serious matter. EVs are a known fire risk because of their batteries. If one generated a fire in Old Town it would be a disaster. The fire department could explain some of the risks we might encounter.

In short, there is no overall plan to transition us from fossil fuels while preserving our standard of living. But we are pushing ahead with renewables like everything will be fine. Fossil fuels have powered an amazing increase in our standard of living and in life expectancy. Abandoning them recklessly will be dangerous.

Richard Smith earned a a Bachelor’s in Chemistry from UMAmherst and a career in analytical chemistry and then business development in the information technology industry.