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Green New Deal V - Copper Constraint & Delusions

The Arctic is burning across Alaska, Greenland and Siberia. The satellite image below shows smoke enveloping millions of square kilometers in Russia. You are witnessing a giant positive feedback to global warming. All hell is breaking loose, while most Americans are either asleep or in active denial. Four more years of Trump, and this hell will be decades closer to your bedrooms, my dear fellow Americans.

Wildfires are burning across 11 regions of Russia amid a hot, dry summer. Even regions free from fire are feeling its effects, as air masses have spread the smoke plumes across a wide area. (Four million square kilometers as of July 28, 2019.) The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite acquired this natural-color image on July 21, 2019. Source: NASA Earth Observatory, accessed 28 July, 2019.

Let me be clear.  The future is in solar energy, as in solar PV modules, passive solar heaters and wind turbines. The sun will last a lot longer than all fossil fuels. Of course, we will have to learn how to reproduce these sun machines with fewer fossil fuel inputs. We will also have to reduce the intakes of water, food, power, copper, lithium, cement, plastics, and pretty much everything else. The solar future will be much slower, and we need to learn fast how to let go of all the unnecessary activities, objects, needs and wants we take for granted today. We will have to learn how to resist the global fossil amoeba that will try to tempt us to behave like the clinically insane economists. Imagine fewer people on the Earth. Each person will use a lot less power and materials. Please keep on memorizing this most important concept that will let you survive in the long run, all economic predictions of abundance notwithstanding.

My favorite city in the world and home for 19 years, Berkeley CA, just banned use of natural gas at homes. That's great, but gas is used mostly to heat houses and water, and for cooking. If you replace this gas with electricity generated mostly from natural gas, you roughly triple carbon dioxide emissions through the conversion of gas heat to electricity and reverse conversion of electricity to heat. Thus, unless you generate electricity only with PV and wind turbines, this is not a good idea, unless concentrating power generation prevents fugitive methane emissions from gas pipelines, storage tanks and houses.

If you only use renewables, there will be some mightily cold houses at night, even with the incredibly mild climate in Berkeley. This is the change of lifestyles we must face up to. As a remedy, we will need much better wall and attic insulation, insulating doors and windows, and thicker sweaters. Most homes in Berkeley are woefully inadequate in this respect. In summary, the Berkeley gas ban is a proposition only for the affluent and willing to pay the high price of full transition to electricity, just as I have on my property in Austin, TX, see Figure 1.  If transition away from natural gas is possible in large cities (and that's a big if), Berkeley's move is in the right direction given the apparently run away methane emissions in big cities.

Figure 1. Our second 8 kW peak solar PV array is designed to withstand 185 km/h hurricane wind blowing directly into its back side. Each module has an individual controller that prevents deterioration of array's performance in case of partial shading by clouds or trees.  A full wave form inverter has very low power losses. With two arrays and the blasting summer sun, I exported 1.8 MWh during the last 30 days, enough to supply 1-2 houses with electricity for air conditioning. This exported electricity becomes a credit, which will be used up by our electrical heaters in winter and - later - by charging our electric car each night. A big coal-fired power plant near Houston will supply electricity for our heaters and car.

There is a lot of discussion about how inefficient fossil fuels are today and how wonderfully efficient renewables are. This is not true and here is a reality check. If current power mix that drives the world returns only little extra power (its energy returned on energy invested, or EROI, is low), how come are we adding 100 million net new babies per year, the New Silk Road (Figure 2), and all these giant power-hungry investments everywhere? A lioness hunting a gazelle must obtain an average continuous EROI of at least 3 to keep herself and her 2-3 cubs alive. Thus, our overall EROI must be higher than 10 on the average. Let's assume that it were not. In that case, why would some 50,000 cargo ships continue to deliver whatever to whomever around the world, burning 300 million tons of bunker oil fuel per year and generating some 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions (as much as Germany)?  Why would some 26,000 planes continue to carry 4.5 billion people per year, generating another 2% or so of global emissions? Yes it is true, in 2019, there will be enough excess power to fly 6 out of 10 people living on the Earth. And airlines are planning to double the number of planes from 25,830 to 50,660 aircraft between 2018 and 2038. Would this be a last-ditch effort to continue current exponential growth? Don't worry. It will not happen.
Figure 2. A tiny fragment of China's $1 trillion New Silk Road. China hopes that by 2030 Lanzhou New Area will have a million full-time residents and an annual G.D.P. of forty-one billion dollars. In the meantime, in the background, you see yet another new, expensive ghost town in China, full of cement but devoid of inhabitants. Source: The New Yorker, accessed 7/24/2019.

However, current average EROI larger than 10 is already fraying on the edges, because the easy gas, oil, copper, etc. are gone, and the difficult ones kill the healthy environment, and bankrupt corporations and countries. Since today there are still loads of spurious power waiting to be used by someone, we keep on escaping into ever more technology and complexity. This trend must end as we enter the Green New Deal's Great Simplification. Here are but two examples:

NY Times reports:
"The fire warning system at Notre-Dame took dozens of experts six years to put together, and in the end involved thousands of pages of diagrams, maps, spreadsheets and contracts, according to archival documents found in a suburban Paris library by The Times. The result was a system so arcane that when it was called upon to do the one thing that mattered — warn “fire!” and say where — it produced instead a nearly indecipherable message."

Most universities work on making cities "smart," whatever this term means to different people.  Here is what a civil engineering professor from Canada wrote about the increasing vulnerability and instability of the ever more complex systems that will run our smart cities for a short time:

"The most critical question, however, is whether having a smart city will make us meaningfully better at solving urban problems. Data and algorithms alone don’t actually add very much on their own. No matter how much data a city has, addressing urban challenges will still require stable long-term financing, good management and effective personnel. If smart data identifies a road that needs paving, it still needs people to show up with asphalt and a steamroller.

For many urban challenges, effective analog — “dumb” — solutions already exist. Congestion can be tackled with autonomous cars, true; it can also be tackled with better railways, bus rapid transit and bike lanes. Houses can be covered in sensors to control an automated heating and cooling system; they can also be built with operable windows and high-quality insulation."

She is a wise young lady, although she doesn't mention explicitly the most fundamental requirement for the existence and evolution of complex cities: a continuous throughput of ever more power.  Less power and more power intermittency = less complexity, with no exceptions.

Let's talk now about the physical constraints on the Green New Deal, starting from copper that is essential for the electrification of the global economy. From Figures 3 and 4, it follows that roughly half of all copper from existing mines and the 100% certain mine expansion projects has been produced, amid decreasing ore grade, skyrocketing water use and increasing energy costs of continuing production.  Current mines might produce another 750 million tons of copper, if they still remain economic, but new mines will produce more copper beyond this estimate.

So how much new copper do we need to drive the global Green New Deal into its bright solar future? Well, it depends on how widely we want to proceed with electrification. Let's start from recognizing that solar panel arrays and wind turbine farms are more copper-intensive than conventional power plants, see Figures 5 and 6. Depending on the source, solar PV might be 8 times (Figure 5) or 2.5 times (Figure 6)  more copper intensive than the large, 1000 MW coal-fired power plants. The reason is simple, each 300 W peak, 1.6 x 1 meter solar panel must be connected with a copper wire to an adjacent panel in an array. By the time you get to a 1000 MW peak solar farm, you will have 3.3 million copper wire connectors, not to mention tens of thousands of copper cables to connect all arrays in the farm. Offshore wind turbines are even more copper-hungry, see Figure 6.

Thus far, I have talked only about power plants.  But now we must account for all the copper used to erect big transmission lines, small transmission lines, the "last kilometer" power delivery lines, transformers,  and inverters. Finally, we must wire each building with a spider web of wires made of copper.  In China, this means that around 40 metric tons of copper were used in 2010 (Figure 7), to add each megawatt of electrical infrastructure from a power plant all the way down to the electric sockets in someone's bedroom. And think about the copper in all these appliances people buy to use their sockets.

Replacing the coal fired-power plants with solar PV arrays, and ignoring the doubling or tripling of copper infrastructure for those electric vehicles everybody will want to have, I assume that the average copper intensity of the Green New Deal is only 50 tons of copper per 1 MW peak of solar power.  (It could easily be 70 tCu/MW.)

As you may remember from Part II, replacing 11.1 TW of current primary power from coal and oil, will require about 90 TW peak of electric power in photovoltaics. This means that some 4500 million tons of copper will have to be deployed as wires and all gadgets made with copper. This amount is six times all currently producible copper in the world. At this point, I encourage you avid technologists to drag me over the coals for not stating that new technology will find and produce this amount of new copper. But you will be deluding yourselves, because it never will. Thus, the deep and wide Green New Deal is impossible on this planet. We are left, again with the same choices: vastly shrink the human numbers and use much less of everything on average. But I already told you so in Part I.
Figure 3. This is my fit with three Gaussians of the historic mine-mouth copper production from Wikipedia. An estimated 80% of all copper ever mined is still in use today. According to the International Resource Panel's Metal Stocks in Society report, the global per capita stock of copper in use in society is 35–55 kg. Much of this is in more-developed countries (140–300 kg per capita) rather than less-developed countries (30–40 kg per capita).  The concentration of copper in ores averages only 0.6%, and is rapidly decreasing. According to the Chilean government statistics, average copper grade fell by 6.2% compared to 2017, and has fallen by 20% in ten years (pp. 13 and Table 48).  Chile produces roughly 1/4 of all copper in the world (Table 78), and Chilean ore grades were as high as 1% Cu in 2009.  Superimposed on the plot are the copper production forecasts by Glencore (p.13), and their predicted deficit of global copper in the next decade. With a rapid transition to the Green New Deal, this deficit may be several times larger. The Chilean copper database, and other alarming details of copper production in Chile were pointed out to me by the ever helpful Pedro Prieto, my friend from Spain.

Figure 4. Cumulative copper production in the world is obtained by integration of the annual copper production in Figure 3. Another 750 Mt of copper might be produced from the current mines worldwide, if they remain economically viable. There will be new mines and new production in the future, but this estimate is unlikely to double.

Figure 5. Relative copper intensity of different electric power plants. Transmission lines, distribution lines, transformers, house wires and possible car recharging stations are excluded. For the use of copper in solar arrays and wind turbines, this graph was based on a slide from the now defunct website in a presentation “China's infrastructure Boost and Its Impact on 2009 Metal Demand,” 12 January 2008. The original graph and data are courtesy of David Fridley, his email on 7/26/2019.

Figure 6. Just like Figure 5, but this October 2018, plot is adapted from page 34 of "Copper and its electrifying future" by DBS Group Research, Asian Insights Office. Notice the high copper intensity of offshore wind farms. Solar PV went down from 8 to 5 tCu/MW, but onshore wind remained similar.  

Figure 7. Adapted from David Fridley, his email on 7/26/2019. For the copper intensity of China’s power system, David gathered data on the copper consumption in the power sector, reported annually by Antaike at, and the data on the amount of newly installed gigawatts of power generation, reported by China Electricity Council, The relationship appears to be stable and slightly rising since 2010. The red line includes the power plant itself as well as all grid use.  The upper black dotted line trend accounts the differential copper intensity of solar PV in China from Figure 5. It is important to notice that the extra copper in electrical cars, their charging power lines and stations is not included.

P.S. (7/29/2019)  Fresh from Pedro Prieto and Mike Haywood: On July 25th, 2019, a new record of commercial flights was set: 230,000 flights in one day, with over 30,000 planes in the air simultaneously at any a given moment.  At 100 people per plane on the average, that's 23 million people in the air in one day!  We have thus created a virtual city in the air, the second largest city on the Earth, just after Shanghai.

Let's raise that average global EROI to a number larger than 20, shall we? But, if I am wrong, humanity is blowing away its priceless, given only once, endowment of conventional crude oil using the borrowed electrons that masquerade as cash.  And shale oil will never be a replacement for conventional crude oil!


    The Genocidal Roots of the Green New Deal: The Limits to Growth and the Unchaining of Prometheus

    1. @Anonymous, I decided to publish your reference to this odious, dark, conspiratorial technobabble, so that we all can see what many others read and think these days.

      By the way, if you honestly believe in your worldview and sources, why don't you reveal your name? Just a thought... The Editorial Board of the "e-journal" also remains anonymous.

    2. I started digging more, @Anonymous. You are hardly alone. It turns out that

      “It’s alarming to find that the majority of YouTube videos propagate conspiracy theories about climate science and technology.”

      Your source, the, fits this description rather well. I thought hard, which intelligence agencies establish these websites and feed misinformation to sow discord among us? GRU certainly comes to mind. The "article" you cited had a distinct Russian or Chinese smell.

      According to the author's public profile,

      "Matthew J.L. Ehret, is a journalist, lecturer and founder of the Canadian Patriot Review and is an author at Fort-Russ. His works have been published in the Strategic Culture Foundation, Executive Intelligence Review, Global Research, Global Times, The Duran, Los Angeles Review of Books and Matthew has also published the book “The Time has Come for Canada to Join the New Silk Road” and three volumes of the Untold History of Canada (available on He can be contacted at"

      It seems to me that the Chinese money might be involved.

  2. @Anonymous, philosophical writings on a finite planet don't help too much.

  3. "Let me be clear. The future is in solar energy, as in solar PV modules, passive solar heaters and wind turbines. "

    actually, on a finite planet facing overpopulation, resource depletion, ecological collapse and economic insolvency, the ONLY future is far fewer people and a radical curtailment of consumption.

    yes worshiping techno-jeebus as a savior is attractive, but it is also a fool's errand. climbing ever higher up the technology ladder only makes the fall harder.

    "Four more years of Trump, and this hell will be decades closer to your bedrooms, my dear fellow Americans."

    electing a different captain of the titanic won't keep the ship from sinking... neither will adding more and more pumps, unless we first stop drilling more holes in the hull. sadly, no one cares about the ecosystem if that means changing their behavior (not drilling more holes), so enjoy your "green illusions", and try to also enjoy these remaining good days... because this story doesn't have a happy ending.

  4. Thanks for sharing different types of uses solar power, but every people has one question in our mind i.e. How To Calculate Solar Savings


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