Battling Over Batteries

“Green” advocates aspire to power the entire U.S. electrical system with wind and solar energy. How are they going to do that, given that wind turbines produce electricity only around 40% of the time, and solar panels produce electricity, in most areas, less than 25% of the time? The truthful answer is that whenever utilities build (or contract with) a wind farm or a solar installation, they also build a natural gas plant to provide electricity during the majority of the time when the “green” resources are idle. This is why wind and solar energy, unlike nuclear power, actually lock us into fossil fuel use for the indefinite future.

Of course, green power advocates don’t admit that they plan on using natural gas forever. They hold out hope that electricity produced by wind and solar facilities will be stored in batteries–giant ones, I assume–so that it can be used when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. No such batteries exist, of course, which is why they are not already in use. And any existing or foreseeable battery technology would rely on vast amounts of lithium, which must be mined.

Currently, the Chinese are “rush[ing] to dominate the global supply of lithium.” We do have lithium deposits in the United States, notably in the Panamint Valley of California. The Los Angeles Times reports: “A war is brewing over lithium mining at the edge of Death Valley.”

Recently, the Australia-based firm Battery Mineral Resources Ltd. asked the federal government for permission to drill four exploratory wells to see if the hot, salty brine beneath the valley floor contains economically viable concentrations of lithium. …

The drilling request has generated strong opposition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Defenders of Wildlife, who say the drilling project would be an initial step toward the creation of a full-scale lithium mining operation.

That is the idea, I suppose.

They say lithium extraction would bring industrial sprawl, large and unsightly drying ponds and threaten a fragile ecosystem that supports Nelson’s bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and the Panamint alligator lizard, among other species.

“A lithium mine would destroy these spectacular panoramas,” drilling opponent Tom Budlong said recently as he and fellow activists buzzed over the Panamint Valley in a chartered Ecoflight aircraft.

The Times story includes this photo of the “spectacular panoramas” of the Panamint Valley. Most would say that it is a desolate, godforsaken place. If we can’t mine here, where can we mine?

For dyed-in-the-wool environmentalists, the brewing war over lithium mining poses a moral dilemma as it seemingly pits them against efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Constructed with the world’s lightest metal, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries allow vehicles to run on power generated by wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric dams and other clean-energy sources. …

Drilling opponents also acknowledge that the burden of producing lithium should not just fall on nations with less restrictive health and safety regulations and environmental safeguards.

“It’s a tricky question,” said Lisa Belenky, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We shouldn’t export the sacrifices to Bolivia and Argentina, for example, which have massive lithium mines … We also think that Panamint Valley is not the right place for it.”

Currently there is one lithium mine in the United States. I think we can safely say that environmentalists will never approve of another one.

Does it matter? There is great demand for lithium used in existing technologies–phones, laptops, electric vehicles, and so on. But the idea that batteries of any foreseeable design will combine with wind turbines and solar panels to satisfy America’s need for electricity is a fantasy. For one thing, batteries of the requisite capacity would be prohibitively expensive. It has been calculated that, using the most advanced battery technology on the market, Tesla’s 100 MW, 129 MWh battery in use in South Australia, it would cost $133 billion to store the electricity needs of my state, Minnesota, for 24 hours. That is more than one-third of the state’s annual GDP.

Thus, for the foreseeable future, wind and solar energy will be useless add-ons to an already-sufficient electric grid. If you seriously think that CO2 emissions endanger the Earth’s future, as so many environmentalists at least claim to believe, the only rational course is a massive investment in nuclear power.

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