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Hello to all our followers down in the South East, especially those on the south Essex and north Kent coasts who are soon going to have their views enhanced (in the name of saving the planet of course) by the Thames Array offshore wind farm.  Sounds great, unless you’re a seagull in which case it sounds like a dull thud of an 80-metre fibreglass composite guillotine.

Until recently, investors were queuing up to run a mile from proposed wind farm projects (most recently Shell decided to withdraw from the Thames Array project and you’d think that they know a thing or two about what makes commercial sense) until our hapless Chancellor spouted something in the Budget about increasing funding for wind power; any GCSE economics student could have told him that the heat released by bonfires of MPs’ expenses forms could power Cambridge for about 5 months.  And of course who could forget our Glorious Leader’s statement that “the London Array is a flagship project in our drive to cut emissions by 80% by 2050 and meet future energy needs. The UK is a world leader in offshore wind farms, creating jobs and prosperity for the economy. That’s why we have increased our support for this technology as we move towards a low-carbon future”.  Low carbon Gordon?  More like no neodymium mate.

Neodymium is a rare earth metal; as in it occurs in low concentrates within other ore bodies, as opposed to it being rare in occurrence, although more of that in a moment.  It has the atomic number 60 and is a lanthanide (I thought they were the baddies in an old episode of Star Trek until now).

To make super gucci magnets – neodymium-iron-boron ones are the Carlsberg of all magnets – as part of the actual electrical generation process within a wind turbine assembly, you need neodymium.  In a standard turbine, the ratio of neodymium to capacity is approximately 1 ton/Mw.  So, the planned capacity of Phase I of the London Array at 693Mw will require 693 tons of neodymium.

Sadly, neodymium is quite hard to come by; firstly because it occurs in such small proportions, as mentioned above, meaning it costs a lot to mine and process.  Secondly because the environmental lobby spent decades closing down dirty, stinky mines in the name of progress, so global supply has fallen and thirdly – this is the really interesting bit – guess which country has 100% of current global supply?  I’ll give you a clue; it’s the same country that’s recently announced IT wants to increase its wind power generation capacity to 100Gw by 2020.  Yep, it’s China.

Just to fulfil their own domestic demand would require 100,000 tons of neodymium.  Global supply – of which of course they control 100% – is around 20,000 tons.  So, before you factor in demand from any other, let alone every other, country in the world, there is an immediate imbalance of 80,000 tons a year.  That’s not just running out of the stuff, that’s running out of it four times over.

Supply could be increased although the Chinese are busy buying up the two Australian miners that could actually provide significant increases in future global supply.  Likewise US mines closed in the 80s and 90s could be reopened but not only does that take years – and an awful lot of speculative investment, just at a time when the US economy declined 6.1% in Q1 2009 – but it also would mean massive environmental protests.  Dig a dirty, stinky mine to produce clean energy…as Buck Murdock said “irony can be pretty ironic sometimes”.

As for where Gordon thinks we’re going to get all ‘our’ neodymium from, who knows?  One solution would be to tell MPs that they can claim for it on their expenses…in just days we’ll have enough of the stuff to sell to Johnny Foreigner.  The other may be to look at these idealistic views of wind power and work out that building the tower and the blades is the easy part (good news for the Vestas Blades plant on the Isle of Wight then).  Making them produce electricity at grid parity without stupid levels of government subsidies is harder but possible.  But finding enough raw materials to make them actually function may be nigh on impossible.  Of course, you could go cap in hand to the Chinese and ask them if they can sell us some of what they have and need.  Any idea what their answer might be?

So, long-term, wind power may turn out to be little more than a lot of hot air.