Isaac Saul has an excellent post that does the heavy lifting for understanding what drives the price of a gallon of gasoline in the US. I'd like to see more reporting that leverages the systemic thinking mindset Mr. Saul brings to his craft. (So much so, I'm a paid subscriber to his newsletter.) Invest a half hour of your time to read his article and than reconsider where you want to place your "I did that!" stickers.
I would like to challenge one place in Mr. Saul's article where his system thinking falls short. In the "My take" section of his article, he states:
[T]he main argument for moving away from oil to renewables is that oil is finite, and renewables are — by definition — not. The very nature of crude oil is that there is only so much of it on the planet. And as it gets more difficult to find and extract, the process for retrieving it will get more expensive. Oil's very nature will make it more expensive over the long-term, which is one of the reasons Biden (and Democrats to the left of him) believe so strongly that renewables are the only true path to energy independence.
Oil is not renewable. Its supply is finite. No disagreement there. However, to state that "renewables" - by definition - are not finite is to say they are infinite. Except they aren't infinite. I could substitute "lithium" or "nickel" or "cobalt" for "crude oil" in the quote above and it would be just as true. The label "renewable" is a slight of mouth device. In the language of system dynamics, "renewable" strategies in the context of energy production are little more than shifting the burden. I'll get back to this a little later. For the moment, consider the infrastructure behind a few things needed to harness "renewable" energy sources:
The solar panels that convert sunlight to electricity do not spring from the ether gratis.
The turbines that convert wind power to electrical power do not spontaneously bloom from the ground in response to blowing wind.
The rare earth elements that are combined to create a rechargeable battery do not bubble up from the earth in pure form just waiting to be scooped up.
I could go on. But these example only address the the manufacture of products that collect and harness the energy from natural resources like the sun and wind. Each one of these products has a very finite life span. To be an infinite source of energy - "renewable" in the language of sustainability - these products would need to be 100% recyclable at a cost that wouldn't erase the net gains from their productive lifespan.
The emerging problem of what to do with end-of-life rechargeable batteries, for example, is only now being addressed. It's a complex, wicked problem. The way its being handling reminds me of the forced shift away from the old incandescent light bulbs to the compact fluorescent lamp bulbs (CFL's) ten-ish years ago. The mercury in CFLs made them both a health hazard and an environmental hazard. We were expected to recycle those bulbs, but of course, most people didn't and now 80% are in landfills.1 Matching the mercury issue with what I know about human nature and the quest for convenience, this was easy to predict. My solution was to try and bypass the CFLs altogether. I bought up a supply of incandescent bulbs to last several years as a way to hold me over until LED technology could re-create the warm light of the incandescent bulbs and eliminate the eye strain I experience when working under CFLs. Turns out, this worked wonderfully. Can’t say I have a similar trick for the jump from fossil fuels to whatever is next.
I couldn't find any reliable data for how many lithium batteries from phones, electric shavers, toys, flashlights, etc., etc., etc. are recycled and how many end up in landfills. The answer seems to be that nobody really knows. My guess is "most." It isn't a stretch to assume all those little lithium batteries have the same afterlife as most CFLs. A whole lot of littles can add up to a whole lot of non-renewable renewables in landfills. Of course, some of these batteries are used in ways or otherwise destroyed such that the components will never re-enter a product life cycle.
How about wind turbines? Way back in 2013 the EPA projected the average lifespan for a wind turbine to be 20 years. Since then, many more wind turbines have been installed and the data are revealing that the average lifespan is something more like 10-15 years. Which ever number is correct, all seem to agree that there are costly overhauls required on each turbine about every 10 years or less. The overhaul cost cuts significantly into the overall cost effectiveness of power generation. What happens to the blades and other bits and pieces isn't pretty. More landfill. Not much "renewable" about that. How much petroleum-based energy and materials were used to make them in the first place? (This article seems to be reasonably referenced on the issues with wind generated electrical power.)
To paraphrase the Laws of Thermodynamics: There's no free lunch. Within a time scale humans can comfortably conceive, the sun and wind certainly seem infinite. But the components used to capture and channel the energy from the sun and wind are indeed finite.
Back to this idea of shifting the burden. The electric vehicle owners have shifted the polluting aspect of their driving habits to the polluting aspects of electric vehicle production and electrical energy generation. They no longer pollute locally. They pollute somewhere else - power plants that burn fossil fuels, mining and extraction operations that use fossil fuels, transportation of raw materials and finished products that use fossil fuels, etc. Collectively, we are shifting the burden of dealing with recycling the end-of-life products used to provide "renewable" electrical energy to future generations. Much of the policy around "renewables" has shifted the burden in space and time. To quote an iconic future-generation-person: "How dare you!"
I'll stop here and leave it as an exercise for the reader to explore ideas around unintended consequences, first principles, and second order effects. The long-term viable solutions to how globalman is affecting the environment will need a much stronger spine than what it takes point fingers at America or hold up a protest sign while standing in a pair of $300 petroleum-based shoes.2
According to the EPA as reported by Waste Management. I found similar numbers elsewhere on the Intertubes, but not an actual EPA report. I’m not enough of an EPA wonk to spend hours looking through the EPA haystack. If anyone has better information directly from the EPA, I’d like to post that source.