18 August 2022 |

Let’s debate

By Nick Van Osdol

The impetus for today’s newsletter is a marked rise of posts on Twitter of late (at least in my feed) where people loudly decry climate technologies for one reason or another.

Wind farms kill birds. The extraction required to produce inputs for batteries is bad for the environment and depends, in places, on child labor. Uyghurs in concentration camps in China make the solar panels that pop up in American suburbs.

Fact? Fiction? Somewhere in between? Let’s explore some of the most common refrains. 

EV batteries and metals 

The charge: This one’s probably the most frequent one I see. And I suspect not just from people who, like I, have a soft spot for internal combustion engines. Instead, people who like to antagonize climate tech fans or want to tear down work being done to decarbonize love to point out that sourcing the metals for EVs and their batteries is an extractive enterprise

Taking it one step further, they also like to argue that the world will run out of metals required to make batteries at scale soon (i.e., within decades, they suggest). And there are human rights abuses riddled across African mines that provide metals like cobalt needed for EVs. 

Not saying all of these things are untrue. Those are the charges. So what’s the verdict?

Fossil fuel displacer? Or a deadly cobalt sucker?

The verdict: There’s no denying that sourcing key inputs for batteries that will ‘drive’ the electric and cleantech revolution is a critical concern. Whether it’s supply chains or straight-up shortages, there’s validity in flagging that we need people to innovate energy storage systems and alt-batteries that integrate differentiated sets of inputs. 

Similarly, human rights abuses in countries where companies source metals like cobalt are no joke. And EVs use a lot of cobalt – in 2021, they were one of the #1 drivers of global cobalt consumption.

That said, manufacturing EVs without using cobalt in their batteries is possible. Alternatives that work without cobalt already exist. Chinese EV battery manufacturers are selling them. And in the U.S. this year, half of Tesla’s EV sales were cars with cobalt-free lithium-ion phosphate batteries (LFP). 

By hook or by crook, people innovate. Using different materials is often easier than changing an entire supply chain. Plus, it’s worth noting that the extraction of metals for clean technologies pales in comparison to the incomparable extraction processes required to source millions of barrels of oil every day. But I don’t want to steep into ‘whataboutism’ here. 

Zooming out again, it’s also a bit ludicrous to try and project whether and when the world will run out of metals like lithium. Folks are constantly looking for and finding new deposits. And people who have played a similar game with fossil fuels, i.e., trying to predict when we’ll run out of supply, have been wrong for a century. At the beginning of the 20th century, people said we’d exhaust all oil on the Earth within 50 years. We’d be having a very different conversation if that had been the case!

Wind power and solar are insufficiently efficient

The charge: Proponents of fossil fuels (and nuclear energy) have one point they love to tout. Energy density is the amount of energy stored in a substance. Fossil fuels have phenomenal energy density and, thus, energy production potential. We have them to thank for modern society – unlocking their energy density paved the path for everything around us. 

Producing the same amount of energy that burning fossil fuels does via renewables ultimately takes a lot more infrastructure and more space. These things are objectively true. But is it fair to use this as the basis to argue that we should ignore renewable energy resources?

The verdict: A lot of what’s missed in this line of reasoning, at least when used to oppose renewables, is that pure-play efficiency isn’t the point. It ignores all the negative externalities of burning fossil fuels, like climate change and its myriad impacts.

Further, to break this down more colloquially, when people argue about efficiency, I often ask why they aren’t up for a good ol’ fashioned challenge. Yes, fossil fuels are incredibly practical and efficient. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t high time to innovate our way out of depending on them. Improving wind and solar power to the point where they’re competitive + efficient has been no small task, but it’s proven fruitful

Integrating nuclear power, an incredibly potent power source, into the conversation is a further wrinkle. I’m pro-nuclear power, especially finding ways to harness it that are easier to deploy and don’t come with massive cost overruns and red tape. But there’s no reason to champion nuclear power while opposing renewable energy sources dogmatically. They all have unique characteristics that lend themselves well to different scenarios. 

Further, as in investing, building a diversified portfolio of energy sources for the future is a great bet. No energy source is infallible. And the more energy, the merrier! Why not aim for a future where electricity is clean and practically free? It’s possible, and would help scale other necessary industries and applications that are energy intensive. 

A 100% renewable energy future isn’t possible

The charge: This one’s interesting and intricate. Several countries worldwide want to target a 100% renewable energy future. This would mean no nuclear either – nuclear’s reliance on finite resources makes it, technically, a non-renewable power source. For nuclear fission, at least.

Some notable (and recent!) studies say it’s possible, and quickly. Still, some countries that want to decarbonize and are also opposed to nuclear are having significant trouble with electricity prices. Germany is one. This isn’t to say that countries using a lot of non-renewable energy sources aren’t also struggling. But current challenges fuel renewable energy doubters’ arguments, and questioning whether and when it’d be possible to completely transition away from fossil fuels is fair. 

An army of wind turbines producing renewable energy

The verdict: For one, extending something to its logical extreme to oppose it entirely isn’t the right approach, in my opinion. Just because a 100% renewable energy future is hard to imagine doesn’t make renewables ‘bad.’ Further, considering the remarkable strides wind and solar power have made in the past two decades, it’s disingenuous not to factor in further gains. 

Primary constraints on a 100% renewable future include energy storage and transmission. But those strike me as challenges that can be blocked and tackled, too. Even if countries like the U.S. have languished with transmission, other players, like China, have made plenty of strides. Transportation and the high heat needed in industry will also be much harder to decarbonize than the electricity grid itself. 

From my vantage point, it’ll be a long time before most grid operators consent to retire all natural gas power plants, even if used sparingly as a backup power source. And integrating other firm power sources, even if not entirely ‘renewable,’ like nuclear fission, or as-of-yet unproven at scale, like nuclear fusion, will also likely be essential.

So that lands me in cautious agreement with folks who question whether relying on renewables for 100% of primary energy generation will ever be possible. But again, that doesn’t make renewables bad somehow. They can feature heavily in the energy generation mix while getting support from other firm power sources. 

The net-net

The problematic, veiled argument underlying the line of reasoning surrounding whether renewables could provide all the world’s energy alone and those regarding solar and wind’s ‘inefficiency’ is that we must focus on certain energy sources at the expense of others. Sure, there’s an opportunity cost to each dollar. But like a good portfolio of public equities or venture investments, diversification reveals winners and losers over time

Arguments about the inefficiency of solar and wind inefficiency would have been much more resonant 20 years ago, when they were much more, well, inefficient! I understand why fossil fuel proponents ignore that technologies improve (sometimes exponentially) and that challenges, like sourcing key inputs for batteries, can be overcome. That’s a great way to agitate for the status quo. Hopefully, this email has pointed you in the direction of a handy argument or two to engage in some spirited debate with them.