The Raw Materials That Fuel the Green Revolution
View the high resolution version of today’s graphic by clicking here.
Records for renewable energy consumption were smashed around the world in 2017.
Looking at national and state grids, progress has been extremely impressive. In Costa Rica, for example, renewable energy supplied five million people with all of their electricity needs for a stretch of 300 consecutive days. Meanwhile, the U.K. broke 13 green energy records in 2017 alone, and California’s largest grid operator announced it got 67.2% of its energy from renewables (excluding hydro) on May 13, 2017.
The corporate front is also looking promising, and Google has led the way by buying 536 MW of wind power to offset 100% of the company’s electricity usage. This makes the tech giant the biggest corporate purchaser of renewable energy on the planet.
But while these examples are plentiful, this progress is only the tip of the iceberg – and green energy still represents a small but rapidly growing segment. For a full green shift to occur, we’ll need to 10x what we’re currently sourcing from renewables.
To do this, we will need to procure massive amounts of natural resources – they just won’t be the fossil fuels that we’re used to.
Green Metals Required
Today’s infographic comes from Cambridge House as a part of the lead-up to their flagship conference, the Vancouver Resource Investment Conference 2018.
A major theme of the conference is sustainable energy – and the math indeed makes it clear that to fully transition to a green economy, we’ll need vast amounts of metals like copper, silicon, aluminum, lithium, cobalt, rare earths, and silver.
These metals and minerals are needed to generate, store, and distribute green energy. Without them, the reality is that technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries, nuclear reactors, and electric vehicles are simply not possible.
How do you get a Tesla to drive over 300 miles (480 km) on just one charge?
Here’s what you need: a lightweight body, a powerful electric motor, a cutting-edge battery that can store energy efficiently, and a lot of engineering prowess.
Putting the engineering aside, all of these things need special metals to work. For the lightweight body, aluminum is being substituted in for steel. For the electric motor, Tesla is using AC induction motors (Model S and X) that require large amounts of copper and aluminum. Meanwhile, Chevy Bolts and soon Tesla will use permanent magnet motors (in the Model 3) that use rare earths like neodymium, dysprosium, and praseodymium.
The batteries, as we’ve shown in our five-part Battery Series, are a whole other supply chain challenge. The lithium-ion batteries used in EVs need lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and many other metals or minerals to function. Each Tesla battery, by the way, weighs about 1,200 lbs (540 kg) and makes up 25% the total mass of the car.
While EVs are a topic we’ve studied in depth, the same principles apply for solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors, grid-scale energy storage solutions, or anything else we need to secure a sustainable future. Solar panels need silicon and silver, while wind turbines need rare earths, steel, and aluminum.
Even nuclear, which is the safest energy type by deaths per TWh and generates barely any emissions, needs uranium in order to generate power.
The Pace of Progress
The green revolution is happening at a breakneck speed – and new records will continue to be set each year.
Over $200 billion was invested into renewables in 2016, and more net renewable capacity was added than coal and gas put together:
|Power Type||Net Global Capacity Added (2016)|
|Renewable (excl. large hydro)||138 GW|
|Large hydro||15 GW|
|Other flexible capacity||5 GW|
The numbers suggest that this is the only start of the green revolution.
However, to fully work our way off of fossil fuels, we will need to procure large amounts of the metals that make sustainable energy possible.
Visualizing the World’s Largest Hydroelectric Dams
Hydroelectric dams generate 40% of the world’s renewable energy, the largest of any type. View this infographic to learn more.
Visualizing the World’s Largest Hydroelectric Dams
Did you know that hydroelectricity is the world’s biggest source of renewable energy? According to recent figures from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), it represents 40% of total capacity, ahead of solar (28%) and wind (27%).
This type of energy is generated by hydroelectric power stations, which are essentially large dams that use the water flow to spin a turbine. They can also serve secondary functions such as flow monitoring and flood control.
To help you learn more about hydropower, we’ve visualized the five largest hydroelectric dams in the world, ranked by their maximum output.
Overview of the Data
The following table lists key information about the five dams shown in this graphic, as of 2021. Installed capacity is the maximum amount of power that a plant can generate under full load.
|🇨🇳 China||Three Gorges Dam||Yangtze River||22.5||181 x 2,335|
|🇧🇷 Brazil / 🇵🇾 Paraguay||Itaipu Dam||Parana River||14.0||196 x 7,919|
|🇨🇳 China||Xiluodu Dam||Jinsha River||13.9||286 x 700|
|🇧🇷 Brazil||Belo Monte Dam||Xingu River||11.2||90 X 3,545|
|🇻🇪 Venezuela||Guri Dam||Caroni River||10.2||162 x 7,426|
At the top of the list is China’s Three Gorges Dam, which opened in 2003. It has an installed capacity of 22.5 gigawatts (GW), which is close to double the second-place Itaipu Dam.
In terms of annual output, the Itaipu Dam actually produces about the same amount of electricity. This is because the Parana River has a low seasonal variance, meaning the flow rate changes very little throughout the year. On the other hand, the Yangtze River has a significant drop in flow for several months of the year.
For a point of comparison, here is the installed capacity of the world’s three largest solar power plants, also as of 2021:
- Bhadla Solar Park, India: 2.2 GW
- Hainan Solar Park, China: 2.2 GW
- Pavagada Solar Park, India: 2.1 GW
Compared to our largest dams, solar plants have a much lower installed capacity. However, in terms of cost (cents per kilowatt-hour), the two are actually quite even.
Closer Look: Three Gorges Dam
The Three Gorges Dam is an engineering marvel, costing over $32 billion to construct. To wrap your head around its massive scale, consider the following facts:
- The Three Gorges Reservoir (which feeds the dam) contains 39 trillion kg of water (42 billion tons)
- In terms of area, the reservoir spans 400 square miles (1,045 square km)
- The mass of this reservoir is large enough to slow the Earth’s rotation by 0.06 microseconds
Of course, any man-made structure this large is bound to have a profound impact on the environment. In a 2010 study, it was found that the dam has triggered over 3,000 earthquakes and landslides since 2003.
The Consequences of Hydroelectric Dams
While hydropower can be cost-effective, there are some legitimate concerns about its long-term sustainability.
For starters, hydroelectric dams require large upstream reservoirs to ensure a consistent supply of water. Flooding new areas of land can disrupt wildlife, degrade water quality, and even cause natural disasters like earthquakes.
Dams can also disrupt the natural flow of rivers. Other studies have found that millions of people living downstream from large dams suffer from food insecurity and flooding.
Whereas the benefits have generally been delivered to urban centers or industrial-scale agricultural developments, river-dependent populations located downstream of dams have experienced a difficult upheaval of their livelihoods.
– Richter, B.D. et al. (2010)
Perhaps the greatest risk to hydropower is climate change itself. For example, due to the rising frequency of droughts, hydroelectric dams in places like California are becoming significantly less economical.
What are the Benefits of Fusion Energy?
One of the most promising technologies, fusion, has attracted the attention of governments and private companies.
What are The Benefits of Fusion Energy?
As the world moves towards net-zero emissions, sustainable and affordable power sources are urgently needed by humanity.
One of the most promising technologies, fusion, has attracted the attention of governments and private companies like Chevron and Google. In fact, Bloomberg Intelligence has estimated that the fusion market may eventually be valued at $40 trillion.
In this infographic sponsored by General Fusion, we discuss the benefits of fusion as a clean energy source.
The Ultimate Source of Energy
Fusion powers the sun and the stars, where the immense force of gravity compresses and heats hydrogen plasma, fusing it into helium and releasing enormous amounts of energy. Here on Earth, scientists use isotopes of hydrogen—deuterium and tritium—to power fusion plants.
Fusion energy offers a wide range of benefits, such as:
1. Ample resources:
Both atoms necessary for nuclear fusion are abundant on Earth: deuterium is found in seawater, while tritium can be produced from lithium.
Energy-dense generation like fusion minimizes land use needs and can replace aging infrastructure like old power plants.
There are no CO₂ or other harmful atmospheric emissions from the fusion process.
With limited expected regulatory burden or export controls, fusion scales effectively with a small land footprint that can be located close to cities.
5. Safety advantage
Unlike atomic fission, fusion does not create any long-lived radioactive nuclear waste. Its radiation profile is similar to widely used medical and industrial applications like cyclotrons for cancer treatment.
Fusion energy is on-demand and independent from the weather, making it an excellent option in a dependable portfolio for power generation.
Commercializing Fusion Energy
More than 130 countries have now set or are considering a target of reducing emissions to net-zero by 2050. Meanwhile, global energy demand is expected to increase by 47% in the next 30 years.
While renewables like wind and solar are intermittent and need a baseload source of clean energy to supplement them, fusion, when commercially implemented, could deliver clean, abundant, reliable, and cost-competitive energy.
General Fusion seeks to transform the world’s energy supply with the most practical path to commercial fusion energy. Click here to learn more.
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