Energy creation is relatively simple in theory. Rare earth high gauss magnets spin past copper coils along a magnetically permeable stator core and electromotive force (EMF) is the result. While there are a myriad of technical details that optimize this effect nothing more complicates the production of energy today than the geopolitical climate surrounding rare earth elements (REE).
World demand for energy production is growing exponentially at 10% per year and rare earth elements play a key role. Presently, it is estimated that 90% of the world supply of REE are in China and China consumes 65% of that supply. Asia and Japan consume 25% and the US uses 10%.
Demand for REE is expected to exceed the known reserves by 2012 and China, as a result of the Olympics and production cutbacks is reducing exports of REE to 22% curtailing output by Japanese hybrid vehicle manufacturers. China is also buying up copper mines around the world and all this demonstrates that renewable energies are dependent upon good relations with our largest creditor.
The more complex, sophisticated and technical our society has become has added a layer of dependence not seen in preindustrial times upon our resource depleted nation. We cannot start addressing these issues soon enough because industry was born out of the easily obtained resources that clung to the surface and now those resources are much harder to obtain.
Sustainable industrial societies are now hindered by the complexity created by the benefits of modernization, namely electricity we have all come to rely upon. In South Africa, production of platinum used in catalytic converters and computer hard drives has been severely impaired by chronic rolling electricity blackouts. Platinum, unlike gold is driven by market demand and supply. With 80% of the supply being in South Africa even the US recession and subsequent lower car sales will not result in lower prices or higher availability.
The availability of REE and platinum and copper are naturally a significant part of the business plan for a small renewable energy start up like mine. The more driven I am toward sustainability and energy independence the more I discover that factors totally beyond my control like US foreign policy and the declining US dollar make those goals harder and harder to reach.
There are other REE deposits but like off shore oil, they are less accessible and access must yet be developed. Complex industrial infrastructure is necessary to extract these resources and the very complexity of these solutions doesn’t allow for errors or false steps. Catastrophic events, hurricanes like Katrina, earthquakes, tsunamis, climate change, global economic downturns and war don’t allow us the luxury of complexity.
Complex solutions to increasing energy needs are going to show diminishing returns over time and is one of the reasons I support localizing food production as well as energy production and other essential services. As resources become more scarce and difficult to obtain we have less time to find complex solutions to societal problems. Sometimes the best way is the simple way and local independence, living with the resources at hand, may be the simple way.