It is a compelling vision: by 2050, this island nation will no longer contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. It will grace the globe leaving no imprint, no carbon trail to threaten future generations, merely kissing the surface of the silver sea.
Not that we residents will be energy starved, husbanding our watts like misers, parcelling out energy as if on wartime ration cards, shivering physically and shrivelling economically and politically.
No. Two months ago, Boris Johnson set out how we can have our cake and eat it, consuming at full tilt as, over the next three decades, a green industrial revolution powers us forward with clean energy and clean consciences. ‘We will harness Mother Nature,’ he said. ‘Green and growth can go hand-in-hand.’
Like Johnson, Biden has promised a green energy revolution, though on a far grander scale. While Britain pledges £12 billion of government investment, Biden’s plan is to spend £1.5 trillion ($2 trillion).
If Biden sticks to his plan, renewables – including wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower – could become the world’s biggest source of electricity by next year, according to Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency.
Gas boilers could be banned in newly built UK homes from 2023, making way for hydrogen boilers or heat pumps. Petrol and diesel cars will begin to disappear until sales of them, too, are banned, in 2030.
The PM paints a picture of Britons cooking ‘your breakfast using hydrogen power before getting in your electric car, having charged it overnight from batteries made in the Midlands. Around you the air is cleaner, and the trucks and trains, ships and planes are running on hydrogen or a synthetic fuel.’
It is a smorgasbord of options to help us generate, store and consume energy in cleaner, more efficient ways. And it’s not impossible.
The UK renewables race
The UK is already doing well on renewables. Latest figures show that in 2020 they collectively generated around 45 per cent of our electricity, up nine per cent on 2019. If the dream of going carbon neutral is truly to be realised, however, Britain will need to plug the remaining gap, and there is one obvious way to do that.
Our island makes us singularly well placed to capitalise on a wind boom offshore, where gusts are strong and regular, and NIMBYs less likely to complain. Already the UK is a global leader, with about a third of the globe’s 29GW (gigawatt) offshore capacity. And we are building more fast. The plan is to quadruple our production by 2030.
If completed, it will represent a remarkable endeavour, as we will need not only anchored, shallow-water turbines but giant, deep-water floating platforms, too. The turbines themselves will be vast.
Currently the most powerful offshore turbine in the world is GE’s Haliade-X, which can power a house for two days with a single rotation of its blade – it stands 260 metres tall, two-and-a-half times the size of Big Ben. Installation of the first Haliade-X field in the world, comprising 190 turbines, will begin in 2023 on Dogger Bank off the Yorkshire coast.
Atop these vast machines, behind the rotors, is a giant ‘nacelle’, which houses all of the components required to generate the electricity. On the Haliade-X, this nacelle is 11 metres wide and contains the generator, known as a PMG. The ‘M’ stands for magnet. A vast magnet.
And it is here, at the pinnacle of a technology that promises to liberate us from pollution and the pressure of poisoning the planet, that the clean green dream begins to tarnish. For offshore turbines typically use no ordinary magnets.
Firstly, they are enormous in size – the Haliade-X turbine requires seven tonnes of permanent magnets, says Paul Atherley, chairman of Pensana, a British mining company.
Most offshore turbine magnets weigh about 650kg for every MW (megawatt) of power they generate. And for most, about a third of the magnet is composed of materials with exotic names like neodymium and dysprosium, from a group of metals known as rare earths.
And while rare earths are not rare, they can be very, very dirty. Yet they are very special too.
The benefits of rare earths
‘They have such amazing properties,’ says Guillaume Pitron, a French journalist and documentary-maker who reports on the global commodities trade, and has now written a book, The Rare Metals War. ‘Magnetic, catalytic, optical. You cannot do the green energy revolution without them.’
In wind turbines it is the magnetic power of rare earths that is prized. ‘They are seven to 10 times more powerful’ than standard magnets, says Pitron, dramatically increasing electricity generation. But rare earths aren’t critical only to turbines.
Their unique properties are vital in solar panels, rechargeable batteries, catalytic converters, energy- efficient light bulbs – as well as a vast array of hitech products unrelated to green energy, including smartphones, camera lenses and missile defence systems – plus they power the motors in electric cars. Such magnet motors are ‘incredibly powerful for their weight,’ says Atherley. ‘It’s why the [electric] Porsche Taycan can accelerate 0 to 60 faster than Lewis Hamilton’s F1 McLaren Mercedes.’
Indeed many forms of green energy are dependent on these rare earths, along with 20 or so cousins called ‘rare metals’ or ‘critical raw materials’.
Though known as ‘rare’, scarcity is not an issue, as they are about as abundant as silver, and found around the world, including in Britain, says Andrew Bloodworth of the British Geological Survey. The problem arises, however, in getting them out of the ground.
Excavating rare earths
As these rare elements are distributed in tiny quantities, vast piles of ore need to be dug up, processed and refined to produce minuscule amounts. For a single kilo of gallium – used in energy-efficient light bulbs – 50 tonnes of rock needs to be excavated, according to Pitron.
Much of this rare earth excavation happens in Baotou, a large city in China’s autonomous province of Inner Mongolia; its population has swollen from under 100,000 to more than 2.5 million as the city has become the epicentre of the globe’s rare metal dependence. China supplies around 98 per cent of these critical resources to Europe, and Baotou has paid the price.
North of the city are the Bayan Obo mines where ore is dug up, to its west are the refineries and alongside, a vast artificial tailings lake, black and sludgy: ‘Ten square kilometres of toxic effluent,’ as Pitron puts it. For Atherley, who has spent his career in mining, Baotou is ‘a horrible environmental disaster’.
‘There’s no getting away from the fact that we need to reduce the environmental footprint of rare-earth extraction,’ says Bloodworth. Especially because, as he concedes, they are irreplaceable. ‘Nothing else performs as well as they do.’
There are obvious solutions. We could consume less. But the green revolution is just beginning. ‘This is the biggest energy transition in history,’ says Atherley. Bloodworth agrees. ‘We’re going to be increasingly reliant on renewable technologies,’ he says. ‘There’s no doubt we’re going to need a lot more rare earths in the future.’ Pitron says growth of demand ‘is exponential’, with consumption for various metals increasing five-, nine- or 20-fold in the next few years.
Reusing rare earths
‘The big one that everyone wants to do is recycle these things [rare earths] more,’ says Bloodworth. But that is extremely hard, precisely because they are so magnetic. And they are often used in tiny quantities, combined with other materials. ‘It’s hard to separate.’ Consequently, current recycling rates are pitiful, writes Pitron: ‘It would be a stunning achievement for manufacturers to one day be able to recycle just 10 percent of rare-earth metals.’
Many renewables are, it turns out, particularly difficult to renew themselves. ‘We tend to think of solar panels as clean, but the truth is that there is no adequate plan to deal with solar panels at the end of their 20- or 25-year life,’ notes Michael Shellenberger, author of Apocalypse Never. ‘In the effort to try to save the climate, are we destroying the environment?’
Extraction and recycling are just two of several problems with renewables, says Shellenberger. Threat to wildlife is also an issue – and not only a result of mining. As solar farms need to be extremely large, building them can involve displacing animals; wind farms threaten birds, in particular, says Shellenberger, ‘big, slow-to-reproduce birds: kites, raptors, eagles and hawks and owls’.
Another downside is reliability or, in the jargon, ‘intermittency’ – wind power can only be generated when it’s windy, and solar power when it’s sunny. A recent McKinsey report detailed how Germany’s increasing reliance on solar and wind almost led to blackouts in June 2019. When largely nuclear France tried to integrate a lot of wind energy on to its grid, says Shellenberger, it had to expand fossil fuel provision as a backup. ‘The result was actually an increase in carbon emissions.
‘Renewables are just not what people think they are. People think that they harmonise society with the natural world but that’s fantasy. Renewables can’t save the planet, are we going to keep letting them destroy it?’
The high environmental price of rare earths would seem prohibitive for Britain – yet British companies are interested in onshoring parts of this currently dirty process, including Pensana, which recently announced a processing site outside Hull to produce a ‘sustainable rare earths supply chain’ from ore mined in Angola.
‘The processes we’re using are super-clean, different to those elsewhere in the world, notably China,’ insists Atherley. There is, of course, also a strategic element to securing new supply lines beyond China. ‘The North Sea power hub… is going to be six times bigger than China’s Three Gorges Dam. The biggest energy installation on the planet ever,’ he continues. ‘You can’t have that reliant on just one country.’
The new oil war?
Annual trade of rare earths is currently a mere $6.5 billion – some 276 times less valuable than oil, says Pitron. However, they are beginning to assume black gold’s geopolitical significance. ‘We have to get them, but how are we going to secure them?’ he asks. ‘Which countries will become the new Saudi Arabias of rare metals? Argentina, Indonesia, South Africa, Russia, China, Kazakhstan will try to gain influence because they have these resources we need. And we’re going to be competing with other countries for access, which will bring tensions. There is a risk that all the conflict around oil access in the 20th century will repeat itself over this “new oil”.’
Last September, the EU announced an Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials. Commissioner Thierry Breton talked of ‘strategic autonomy’ by ‘forging alliances’ with Canada and Australia – both known to have reserves of rare earths – and also by digging for the metals in Europe. Though there is no recent history of mining rare earth elements in Europe, deposits have been identified in Greenland and Sweden.
Indeed, sourcing rare earths closer to home will become increasingly important as pressure on companies to change their practices grows. The era of ‘greenwashing’ (using superficial corporate gestures of environmentalism) is over, says Michelle Davies, international head of clean energy and sustainability for global law firm Eversheds Sutherland. ‘The level of scrutiny is going to be far beyond anything that business people have had to experience today.’
As for the argument that it affects wildlife, she says, ‘Don’t underestimate how difficult it is to get one of these projects permitted.’ This hurdle, together with the others associated with green energy, such as recycling and reliability, can be overcome, she says. ‘It’s not a deal-breaker for renewables.’
After all, extraction of anything has an environmental cost. ‘The world produces about a billion tonnes of iron and steel every year,’ points out Andrew Bloodworth. ‘It produces about 200,000 tonnes of rare earth [ore].’ Volume alone dictates that ‘the environmental impact of the production of those big industrial metals is far, far greater’.
Pound for pound, however, rare earths are vastly more intensive to extract and refine. To Shellenberger that, in combination with renewables’ unreliable, diffuse power, makes the entire green-energy revolution – Boris’s billions and Biden’s trillions – a vast mistake.
‘Renewables are going to have to fail, and they will fail spectacularly everywhere over the next several years, before we discover that really there’s no alternative, in terms of climate change, to doing a lot of nuclear.’
Pitron is not so sure. ‘I am not against green energy,’ he says. But he is concerned that we are escaping one trap merely to fall into another. ‘We will have so many environmental impacts to get these metals. Bigger mines, deeper mines, even in the oceans. We are moving into a situation where, in 20 years, the cost of green technologies will actually be superior to the benefits. It’s crazy.’ https://www.telegraph.co.uk/environment/2021/01/16/dark-side-green-energy/