Low-carbon power depends on climate-unfriendly metals

By John Matson on October 1, 2013

Because electricity and heat account for 41 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, curbing climate change will require satisfying much of that demand with renewables rather than fossil fuels. But solar and wind come with their own up-front carbon costs. Photovoltaics require much more aluminum—for panel frames and other uses—than other technologies do, according to a 2011 study at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Alloys for wind turbines demand lots of nickel. Those metals are carbon culprits because they are produced in large amounts by high-energy extracting and refining processes.

The demand for metals, and their already significant carbon footprint, may grow with a switch to green energy. Given all the resources needed for new infrastructure, an analysis last year found that large solar installations take one to seven years to “break even” with coal power on the greenhouse scorecard. Wind farms take from less than one year up to 12 years.* All the more reason to make the switch sooner than later.

*Clarification (9/30/2013): This sentence was edited after publication to note the low-end estimate for wind energy’s greenhouse payback time, which is more reflective of modern wind turbines.ADVERTISEMENT

Graphic Science Graph

For more on renewables, go to ScientificAmerican.com/oct2013/graphic-science

This article was originally published with the title “Renewable Energy’s Hidden Costs” in Scientific American 309, 4, 100 (October 2013)

Conor Cummins
Richard Nollman

Richard Nollman is the Chief Technology and Information Officer of Energy Mitigation Associates. He is an innovative leader driving technical vision to achieve EMAs mission, to provide our clients with the best possible outcomes resulting from environmental consumer litigation.

As CTO/CIO, his role is to develop strategies for using technological resources to evaluate and implement new systems and infrastructure to ensure that technologies are used efficiently, profitably, and securely.

A graduate of Boston University School of Public Communications, Richard has spent over 30 years working with complex technologies for Fortune 500 companies and multiple start-ups creating business value and growth through technology and information management.

Steven Giacalone

Steven Giacalone is a career business management and finance professional who has decades of experience in the commercial, mortgage, and investment banking sectors. He also has extensive experience in various investment analysis and management roles within the commercial real estate development industry.

For the past 20 years he had provided effective consultative vision and independent management guidance to dozens of start-up companies who have collectively sought out his exceptional organizational management skills and keen business acumen. In the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis he successfully helped to assemble and originate 15 FINRA fraud and misrepresentation arbitration cases against Auction Rate Securities (ARS) Wall Street broker dealers.

A former USAF officer, his natural leadership talent has and continues to produce enormous incremental enterprise value for such clients. He holds a BA with majors in both Mathematics and Social Sciences from Dowling College as well as an MBA from Harvard University. He also recently completed an Advanced Studies Program (ASP) Fellowship from MIT, with a concentration in Financial Engineering.