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The True Meaning of Unobtanium

Do we really need this? (Chris LeBoutillier, Unsplash)

George Harvey

A video has been going around called “Unobtanium.” It was posted on YouTube, also with the name “What’s Wrong with Wind and Solar.” (www.bit.ly/Unobtanium-video) It tells us that renewable resources cannot supply us with all our energy, that the equipment used to make them damages the environment, and that there is no good way to dispose of their waste. How very depressing that would be!

I should explain a couple of things about it before you get too excited. First off, the video comes from Prager University. Prager is not an accredited university. It is not even a degree-granting institution. It is a non-profit organization, which means it is not run for financial gain, but those who support it can deduct what they give to it from their taxable income. In other words, Prager University exists to benefit a cause of those who support it at low cost.

What Prager U says about itself is, “Prager University is the world’s leading conservative nonprofit that is focused on changing minds through the creative use of digital media. Taking full advantage of today’s technology and social media, we educate millions of Americans and young people about the values that make America great.” (www.prageru.com/about)

Mark Mills, the kindly-looking narrator of “Unobtanium,” is described as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. This also is not an educational organization. It is, in its own words, “a leading free-market think tank.” (www.manhattan-institute.org) In other words, it is pushing a “free market” political and economic agenda, which is generally opposed to regulations, except those that arise within the market. Such organizations oppose environmental regulations, deny that societal costs of fossil fuels are valid, and decry new incentives for renewable energy.

Mark Mills has his own site, Tech Pundit. (www.tech-pundit.com). There, we read, “Mills is a co-founder and strategic partner in Cottonwood Venture Partners, the nation’s first venture fund dedicated to software for the oil & gas and shale industries.”

So we should note from the start that Mills has an axe to grind. And we can note that the video has a political and economic agenda compatible with Mills’ intentions.

We might give an example of how carefully he grinds that axe. In a recent tweet, he said, “Terrific, honest, consumer-centric review. Factoid of the month: switching all govt vehicles to EVs (0.2% of nation’s vehicles) would require 50% of ALL the 500,000 EV chargers Biden plan proposes to fund.” (https://twitter.com/MarkPMills)

This deserves some comment. According to Statistica.com, there are 273.6 milliion vehicles in this country. (www.bit.ly/fed-fleet) If we take 0.2% of that, we have 547,200 vehicles. Half of 500,000 EV chargers means 250,000 of them. So he is saying we need 250,000 charging stations for 547,200 vehicles, so one EV charging station is sufficient for the needs of roughly two cars.

According to Statista, there are currently nearly 25,000 charging stations in the country. (www.bit.ly/US-chargers). Since 2010, 1.4 million EVs have been sold in this country, according to USAFacts (www.bit.ly/US-evehicles) The vast majority of these cars are less than three years old, but even if we take the number on the road at 1 million, that would mean that one charging station is sufficient for 40 cars. The federal fleet would not need 250,000 charging stations. The true number would be more like 15,000.

Mills is not merely wrong. He is off by more than an order of magnitude. In other words, he is way, way, way off. But he is off in a direction to benefit him financially because he is invested in fossil fuels.

So that is the background I was able to find about the “Unobtanium” video’s source and its narrator.

The material in the video is never supported by references to data you might look up. It is just reeled off like a sales pitch by a man who only occasionally and indirectly gets around to telling you what he has to sell.

There is very little data to check in the video, but what there is turns out to be badly wrong. And I would not say some of it is probably wrong; my guess is that all of it is wrong in very much the same way he was wrong about the number of charging stations needed for the federal fleet. It is a guess, because there is too much to check thoroughly in one day.

For example, he says solar panels only last a couple of years. I checked several solar PV companies and found their warranties last for 25 to 30 year. And these are not companies you have never heard of. Panasonic, for example, offers a 25 year warranty. (www.bit.ly/Panasonic-PV-warranty) I have no reason to think that Mills checked. But clearly he is wrong.

He talked about the shore life of solar panels. I should mention how badly wrong he is. I have never seen a case of a crystalline solar panel getting worn out. Perhaps there is a reader out there who can find some. When I tried in years gone by to get a realistic estimate for the life of a solar panel (note, life, not warranty period) the only thing I could discover is “Nobody really knows.” We know they do degrade over time. But the degradation is very slow, and the time goes into multiple decades, at least.

One thing he took delight in was the environmental damage caused by manufacturing renewable energy generating equipment. I have no idea where he got his “facts,” because he does not say. He commented on mining rare earth metals as particularly difficult, listing five metals in particular, lithium, cobalt, copper, iridium, and dysprosium. The term “rare earth” may sound important, but in this case, it should not cause any alarm. None of the metals he listed actually is a rare earth metal. (www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rare-earth_element)

One more example (and please remember, these are just a few examples of the many I could cite), is the idea that the waste from solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries will be toxic. Carbon dioxide is toxic, but I doubt he would admit that. Ash ponds are toxic, but I doubt he would allow that into a discussion. Mercury that accumulates in our lakes and ponds is toxic. Nuclear waste is toxic. Plastics are toxic. Do wind turbines or solar panels compare with these?

We really don’t know how much a problem crystalline solar panels will be, because no one has confronted the problem of disposing of them in large numbers. The reason for this is that they have not failed in large numbers. On the other hand, a number of large companies are already working on recovering the materials that would be lost if we threw them out. They will be recycled, because the economy of the situation dictates it.

We know more about recycling wind turbines. Modern wind turbines, the ones that actually do use rare earth elements in them, such as neodymium, are not tossed. The foundations and masts are nearly always still good, and the business of refitting existing wind farms is active.

The neodymium in wind turbines is used to make the powerful, light-weight magnets in them. A turbine could have many hundreds of pounds of these magnets. But they are not altered in use. They could be fitted to new turbines, or they could be recycled to make new magnets. They are very expensive, so it would be foolish to throw them out. And they are so big that they won’t get lost.

So renewable generating equipment does not bring us to a dreadful and toxic end of life scene.

We might contrast that with the dreadful and toxic end of life scenes fossil fuels are bringing us.

But I expect Mills would not admit that climate change is happening, or that people die from diseases caused by pollution. He might even deny that there are more and worse hurricanes, floods, droughts, and tornadoes, than there used to be. And if you show him the data, I expect he would deny that. Such is the time we live in.

1 comment to The True Meaning of Unobtanium

  • I though his statement about the “inexhaustible supply of carbon fuels” tells the whole story about where he is coming from. Is there something down below that is making new coal and oil that only he knows about?
    From an owner of 40 PV panels for 5 years and 3 Daystar solar hot water collectors that still work fine after 42 years!
    (Note that the hot water collectors were made by an Exxon owned company…)

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