From 31 October until 12 November, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, will take place in Glasgow. The summit will bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. One of the topics they should address is power generation and use. At present, for instance, there is relatively rapid movement in the direction of electric road vehicles, later other transport systems, some using batteries, whilst others may eventually use photovoltaic generated power. However there are problems. Cars are the current example of where this is the case. Depending on the model, a single car lithium-ion battery pack (NMC532 type) contains around eight kilos of lithium, 35 kilos nickel, 20 kilos manganese and 14 kilos cobalt.
Lithium is a relatively common alkali metal with quite large sources easily available, but mining it from underground brine water sources presents significant environmental and health hazards. Extraction can be fatal for aquatic life because of water pollution. It is known to cause surface and drinking water contamination, respiratory problems, ecosystem degradation and landscape damage. The largest part of a battery is nickel. It has some, not substantial, detrimental effects on the health of some animals. Manganese (Mn) is the twelfth most abundant of Earth’s elements. Several recent studies examined the effects of chronic low dose Mn overexposure on child development. Drinking water has been contaminated through improper sewage irrigation; a study of 92 children aged 11 and 13 by the USA EPA and WHO, displayed lower performance on tests of manual dexterity and rapidity, short term memory and visual identification compared to children from an uncontaminated area. More recently, a study of 10 year olds in Bangladesh showed a relationship between Mn concentration in well water and diminished IQ scores. Another study in Quebec examined children aged six to fifteen living in homes receiving water from a well containing Mn who displayed increased hyperactivity and oppositional defiant disorder. Mn toxicity appears to cause dysregulation, which is a reduced ability to manage emotional responses, among other disorders. Mn can become toxic; levels increase in seawater when hypoxic (lack of oxygen) periods occur. There have been reports of accumulation in marine organisms including fish, crustaceans, molluscs and echinoderms affecting gills, brain, blood, kidney and liver in different species. Mn can also affect the renewal of immunocytes, suppressing the organisms’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to infections.
Research shows that exposure to cobalt may cause cancer. Workers may be harmed by exposure to cobalt and cobalt containing products, levels of harm depending on dose, duration and type of work. The biggest source of cobalt has been in copper deposits in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Artisanal mining supplied as much as 40% of DRC production; around 100,000 cobalt miners in Congo DRC are said to be using hand tools to dig hundreds of metres with little preparation and fewer safety measures. Lack of safety precautions frequently cause injuries or death, pollute the surrounding area and expose local wildlife and local communities to toxic metals that contribute to birth defects and respiratory difficulties.
Human rights activists have claimed, and investigative journalism confirmed, that child labour is used in mining cobalt. That revelation persuaded Apple to stop buying ore from Chinese suppliers sourcing from artisanal mines in the DRC, instead using only supplies that are verified to meet workplace standards. The EU and major car manufacturers are pressing for global production of cobalt to be sourced and produced sustainably, responsibly with traceability of the supply chain
Mining cadmium and lithium in developing countries where those employed on extraction sites are often working manually for pitiful pay, in terrible conditions, is being discussed, but no real action taken. It is contentious enough to cause examination of extraction and may bring all round improvements with time. With the era of lithium-ion battery use as fuel for transport, mobile telephones and numerous other applications almost certainly limited, there need to be immediate steps toward an alternative.
The idea that solar energy is an alternative is proving particularly difficult in the case of transport vehicles. The extremes between photovoltaic power used for stationary applications to fuel every form of transport from cars, through heavy goods vehicles, construction and earthmoving machinery to ships and aircraft make it notional rather than real. In many cases it is unlikely to succeed, generally because of the capability of the technology to use relatively small solar energy collectors to produce sufficient power to enable propulsion and other functions. It is though still a major source of commercial and domestic power that is still underexploited that should develop in step with solar energy innovation.
Monocrystalline solar panels are the oldest type and the most developed. Polycrystalline solar panels are a newer development, but they are rising quickly in popularity and efficiency. Just like monocrystalline solar panels, polycrystalline cells are made from silicon. Thin-film solar panels are an extremely new development in that industry. The most distinguishing feature of thin-film panels is that they aren’t always made from silicon. They can be made from a variety of materials, including cadmium telluride (CdTe), amorphous silicon (a-Si), and copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS). They are made by placing the main material between thin sheets of conductive material with a layer of glass on top for protection. The a-Si panels use silicon, but the non-crystalline type. Due to the rapid growth in manufacturing in China and the lack of regulatory controls, there have been reports of the dumping of waste silicon tetrachloride that has some environmentally detrimental effects, including on human beings. One study showed that subjects exposed to toxic vapour derivatives experienced central nervous system symptoms in the form of irritation of the mucous membranes affecting eyes, skin and upper airways causing headaches and dizziness. Normally the waste silicon tetrachloride is recycled. It is, nonetheless, almost certainly the cleanest widely used power source at present.
Other sources of energy generation such as the much unloved wind power and water generated sourcing using barrages, tidal barriers and newly developing technology are far too little discussed. Land based wind power is disliked because of ‘damage’ to landscapes and, allegedly, excessive noise. Offshore sourcing is considered far more difficult and expensive to build and at risk of damage and corrosion that make it a costly proposition. They have been built; there are large onshore wind power fields, such as China having the world’s largest capacity for wind energy, totalling just over 288 GW at the end of 2020, of which 278 GW is onshore, the remaining 10 GW offshore using almost 100,000 turbines. The Jiuquan Wind Power Base, the largest in the world, generates power through 7000 turbines. At peak capacity it has the capability of generating an impressive 20 GW. However, because of its remote location only around 40% of the electricity generated is used. More modestly Germany is Europe’s top generator of wind power producing almost 63 GW of installed capacity, 55 GW onshore and 7.7 GW offshore, that supplied 27% of their electricity in 2020 with the target of supplying 65% of electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2030. In order to meet this goal they plan to have 71 GW onshore and 20 GW offshore wind power. It is, nonetheless, still generating relatively little electricity and serves grids rather than having application for all fuel requirements.
What is too little discussed is the relatively stable use of fossil fuel, the total amount of use worldwide, the generation of and how much CO² is generated, less so how much of that is exported and imported in contradiction to some national policies. Burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil produces greenhouse gases that also trap solar radiation in the atmosphere, thus contributing to cause climate change. They also release tiny poisonous particles known as PM2.5 (Particulate Matter 2.5), which are minute particles or droplets in the air that able to travel deep into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs. Exposure to fine particles can cause short term health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath. Exposure to them can also affect lung function and worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease. Recent studies show that in 2018, an estimated 8.7 million deaths were linked to fossil fuel emissions alone.
The traditional fuel quandary
A small but significant detail often overlooked is the scale of use of other fuels, especially ‘traditional’ ones such as wood and peat, with dung, animal fats, reeds and grasses almost entirely overlooked. Throughout the world they are used by vast numbers of people in traditional societies where modern resources are not available and in the enormous number of ‘marginal’ urban areas where poverty and the scale of those places entirely inhibits how clean power can ever be made available. They need to be factored in, but it appears to be the case that because those traditional fuels are seldom used as large scale industrial and electricity generating sources and mostly unused in large established urban areas. Then the use of non petrochemical sourced fuels such as the various gases and alcohol contribute more than is customarily factored in. They are extensively used where mainstream supplies are not available. In the case of all of those fuels, as yet there is no real discussion about alternatives and how to make them available. In the meantime, worldwide they continue to generate a not insubstantial contribution to CO² that is causing climate change. Thus far their use has been little discussed; however their contribution should not be underestimated.
Despite many promises it is unlikely to meet agreed deadlines for an end to use of carbon based fuels. The EU green deal is fraught with contradictions and excuses. Internationally nothing is agreed about nuclear energy with some countries going for the newer, supposedly safer technology, whilst other countries are phasing it out altogether. The controversy over wind power is one that holds it back. Nobody wants turbines in their backyard; there are also environmental campaigners arguing against it on green field sites, on conservation land, national parks and some farmland. Similarly, solar farms are little loved for aesthetic and moral reasons. Mining cadmium and lithium in developing countries where those employed on extraction sites are often working manually for pitiful pay, in terrible conditions, is being discussed, but no real action taken. It is contentious enough to cause examination of extraction and may bring all round improvements with time. In the meantime, fossil fuel generation maintains its strong grasp.
The hydrogen economy is an envisioned future in which hydrogen is used as a fuel for heat and all manner of commercial and domestic use, most types of vehicle, energy storage and long distance transport of energy. In order to phase out fossil fuels and limit global warming, hydrogen can be created from water using intermittent renewal sources such as wind and solar. Its combustion only releases water vapour to the atmosphere. However, in the motor industries where battery powered vehicles are now seen as the future, it will be hard to convince them battery power can only be ‘temporary’, until hydrogen fuel is widely available. There are now some doubts about it. On the one hand, hydrogen fuel cells could offer fully renewable and clean power source for fixed and mobile applications in the foreseeable future.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Notwithstanding challenges related to its extraction from water, it is a uniquely plentiful and renewable. Hydrogen fuel cells provide an intrinsically clean source of energy without adverse environmental impact during operation since the by-products are only heat and water. Unlike bio fuel or hydropower, it does not demand large amounts of land to produce an energy efficient high density source. It has the highest energy content of any common fuel and is more efficient than most other sources including a good deal of green energy. Its efficiency allows greater production of energy per kilo of fuel. With almost no emissions, hydrogen fuel cells do not release greenhouse gases, so they do not have a carbon footprint. They also do not produce noise pollution like other renewable energy sources, such as wind power that are also considered a blot on the landscape along with many bio fuel power plants. Overall, it has good long term potential, is easily accessed in even the most remote areas, is adaptable and should lead to democratisation of power sourcing that will prove beneficial for countries that are currently reliant on fossil fuel.
Despite being abundant, hydrogen does not exist on its own, thus needs to be extracted from water using electrolysis or extracted from carbon fossil fuels. Both of those processes require a lot of energy to achieve that end, mainly using fossil fuels as things stand. Hydrogen fuel cells require investment for development to a point when they are an entirely viable energy source. Precious metals including platinum and iridium are normally required as catalysts in fuel cells and some water electrolysers, meaning the initial cost of fuel cells will be high. The current cost of a unit of power greater than other energy sources, including solar panels. Storing and transporting hydrogen is more difficult than fossil fuels which have been used for many decades; therefore infrastructure is already in place. Embracing hydrogen fuel cell technology for automotive applications on a large scale requires new supporting infrastructure; it is highly flammable which raises safety concerns.
Nonetheless, the advantages of hydrogen fuel cells as the best renewable energy source in the near future are evident. There are still challenges to surmount before realising the full potential of hydrogen as the future replacement for fossil and mineral based fuels. They certain offer a renewable, clean power source for immobile and mobile applications for which there is need to scale up decarbonised hydrogen production and fuel cell production with the necessary regulatory framework that defines commercial exploitation models. It has the potential to be the preeminent solution for the future of energy requirements but call for political resolve and investment to pull off which is not the case at present.
Policies and pitfalls
EU countries have own policies and contradictions, thus undermining the EU green deal because they hold the right to sovereign control of resources as a fundamental that will not be surrendered. Policies and programmes are very different; squaring this situation into an EU/EEA/EFTA policy is met with almost silent but very resolute resistance. It does not look like there can be agreement across the union to standardise the green programme beyond the so-called deal. So, the biggest company in the world, the State Grid Corporation of China, which is state owned with subsidiaries in several countries importing and exporting power, still produces mainly fossil fuel generated based electricity. In the EU, Italian multinational energy company Enel is second biggest worldwide and still growing, third is EDF, a highly influential power generating corporation with several international subsidiaries, another French company, Engie, is sixth, Spanish Iberdrola in seventh position, German multi power and fuel corporation Siemens ninth, then another German multinational, E-ON tenth. There are also other companies throughout Europe selling and buying power abroad.
Large corporations will not surrender control; it is a competitive business in which states are often major shareholders. Therefore national sovereignty is secondary, if not lower ranking, to corporate interests. The division of EDF, or any other corporation, that puts a large part under state control reduces competitiveness, therefore simply leaves a space to be filled by a rival company. Being mostly private companies, we might assume that the degree to which fossil fuels are being used is played down, their power also influencing how governments describe what is used in their countries, whilst overlooking what is exported that need not be as ‘clean’.
It is not simply the role of national governments to regulate corporations, but for an international and enforceable deal to be agreed. At COP26 this topic should be a priority on the agenda as part of the climate change programme. It does not appear to be, so it is unlikely anything significant will be discussed about how to resolve dirty power generation and its diversity of uses. At present we are hearing a lot about parts of the powerful business sector appealing to government to not reduce or even increase use of dirty fuels and some countries building more carbon belching fossil fuel power generation stations. The sovereignty of states is naturally an issue, but the power of the corporations far too great to rein in, thus states will not intervene. It looks like a battle to be lost worldwide.
Featured image by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.