Ourworldindata: on resource quantity and the energy transition

I was forwarded an interesting column, written by a researcher from Ourworldindata, with a comparison in quantity between fossil fuels, and materials extraction. And then the thesis is more or less that the extraction of raw materials to build a renewable energy supply costs many times less raw materials as raw materials (= fuels) for fossil energy, that could be somewhere between a factor of 100 and 1000 less so. So transition is a piece of cake.


Ourworldindata is a highly regarded source, from which I also regularly borrow data, but it appears that critical thinking should be the norm here as well.

Purely quantitatively , in tons of liquid and solid commodities, and without secondary effects, the story is correct. I compare quantities myself from time to time, to get some sense of proportions [x]. And sometimes that’s enough. But in this case, that’s far too simple arguing, and I will try to unravel it.

First of all: both are extracted from a system that can be considered closed in this respect. So thermodynamically in both cases the system is degraded, not restored. So unsustainable anyway, the system goes to equilibrium in both cases. Admittedly quantitatively slower in the second case, but nonetheless.

More relevant is that energy and material are in fact two of the same, and so you should always consider both at the same time. So the comparison is actually between a system that requires a lot of mainly (energy-) resources, and the transition to a system that initially requires less (solid-) resources quantitatively , but still requires a lot of (energy-) resources, to build, and maintain that supply. Which has consequences.

The 2nd system has indeed the advantage of eliminating a major disadvantage of that first system (such as CO2 emissions) In exchange for a second system that increases the solid raw material demand, which also cannot be used unprocessed, and so we have to add energy again in exchange to process those raw materials.

And how does one get the energy resources to make that transition , to build the renewable energy system?

Exactly, that’s fossil fuel resources again!

It is impossible to convert the energy supply system to 100% renewable without using fossil fuels. So we continue to emit gigantic amounts of CO2, in other words, we only make the problem we want to solve a bigger problem, when in fact we are already over a dangerous limit. In this way, of course, we will never reach 1.5 or 2 degrees, it will be at least 3. (as already anticipated in number of publications). And end perhaps with a renewable energy supply, but that is an irresponsible risk in that way.

On top of that, these kinds of calculations also often assume current energy use. But there are still billions of people who want to move toward our level of prosperity, and even nearly a billion who do not even have access to electricity yet. In other words , what applies to us here in the rich part, must also apply to everyone else in the world, and so the problem and resource demand is even more immense…! And only achievable with fossil.

Yes but, is then the reaction, once we established that system, then…? Well, by that time, when 100% is replaced, climate change due to huge CO2 emissions, has already hit so hard that it is chaos in large parts of the world.

That is the main reason, why the comparison doesn’t hold, and also the story that the tech optimists keep ignoring. From the rain into the drizzle.

Look at it this way: we stop fossil tomorrow ( which in fact we should) What then!?

Anyway, thats even not counted with the consequences of the solid resource part.

First: suppose we use only the renewable energy share already available today to extract those resources. So no more fossil. That is possible, but then we have to make do with what we have today in renewable energy, which is only a fraction of the world’s energy use, for daily activities, and then we subtract some of that to realize more energy generation, so then there is even less available for daily use. It can be done, but then we have to drastically reduce energy demand, and it’s going to take a very, very long time to realize that renewable energy supply.

Second, the solid resources themselves: The problem is not that they are not there, nothing is disappearing from the earth. The problem is that they are becoming increasingly scarce that is, occurring in less and less concentrated form. And thus require exponentially more energy to extract the same net quantity. And the case is that for many raw materials the concentrations have already plummeted drastically, There were once mines where one found copper ore with 20% saturation. But we have long since used up those rich ores, currently it is well below 1% , often at half a percent. And if the copper part drops from half a percent to a quarter percent, then 4 times more energy is needed for the same amount of net copper. The whole process bites its tail. And that’s true for most raw materials. Even, I wrote about before, something as trivial as sand for concrete is already scarce and traded illegally in large parts of the world. Drinking water already is scarce, and mega energy is needed for desalination plants in middle east, but also expanding to other areas that face desertification. And those plants are all running on fossil fuels for now.

Well, does a quantitative comparison make sense? No, unfortunately . It is flawed ( omits energy in 2nd option) and is in itself actually not an alternative, because to be produced with fossil energy. (Incidentally, the first alternative is thus not tenable for the same reason).

There is much more to write about it, in complete system reviews , but that is not for this place. (soon hopefully in new book).



[1] http://www.ronaldrovers.com/the-kwhm2-and-the-kghm2-12/

and http://www.ronaldrovers.com/kg-house-per-kg-person-material-need-per-function/

Author: ronald rovers