Opinion: The big hurdle to jump-starting solar, wind energy and electric cars


Although our planet’s surface is blessed with an endless supply of sunshine and wind, we have to build solar panels and wind turbines to harness all that energy — not to mention batteries to store it. That will require vast quantities of raw materials from beneath the earth’s surface. Worse, green technologies rely on certain key minerals that are often scarce, concentrated in a few countries and difficult to extract.

This is no reason to stick with dirty fossil fuels. But few people realize the huge resource demands of renewable energy. A recent report from the International Energy Agency warned: “The transition to clean energy means a shift from a fuel-intensive to a material-intensive system.”

Consider the low-mineral requirements of high-carbon fossil fuels. A natural gas power plant with one megawatt of capacity — enough to power over 800 homes — takes about 1,000 kg of minerals to build. For a coal plant of the same size, it’s about 2,500 kg. A megawatt of solar power, by comparison, requires almost 7,000 kg of minerals, while offshore wind uses more than 15,000 kg. Keep in mind, sunshine and wind aren’t always available, so you have to build more solar panels and wind turbines to generate the same annual electricity as a fossil fuel plant .
The disparity is similar in transportation. A typical gas-powered car contains about 35 kg of scarce metals, mostly copper and manganese. Electric cars not only need double the amount of those two elements, but also large quantities of lithium, nickel, cobalt and graphite — over 200 kg in total. (The figures here and in the previous paragraph exclude the biggest inputs, steel and aluminum, because they are common materials, though they are carbon-intensive to produce.)
All in all, according to the International Energy Agency, achieving the Paris climate goals will mean quadrupling mineral supplies by 2040. Some elements will have to rise even more. The world will need 21 times as much cobalt as it consumes now and 42 times as much lithium.
This will not be easy. Geography is a big part of the challenge. Roughly 70% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a war-torn nation with minimal environmental protections and a history of exploiting child labor. Sixty percent of so-called “rare earth” elements such as neodymium, used for magnets inside wind turbines and electric vehicles, are extracted in China.
So there needs to be a global effort to develop new mines in new places. Even the sea floor can’t be off-limits. Environmentalists, worried about harm to ecosystems, object, and indeed, we should make every attempt to mine responsibly. But ultimately, we have to recognize that climate change is the biggest environmental problem of our time. Some amount of localized damage is an acceptable price to pay for saving the planet.
Time is of the essence. Once mineral deposits are discovered somewhere, they can’t even start coming out of the ground until after a long planning, permitting and construction process. It generally takes more than 15 years.

There are ways we can take some of the pressure off finding new supplies. One is to recycle. Over the next decade, as much as 20% of the metals for new electric car batteries could be salvaged from spent batteries and other items like old building materials and discarded electronics.

We should also invest in research to develop technologies that rely on more plentiful substances. Earlier this year, there was an apparent breakthrough in creating an iron-air battery, which would be much easier to produce than the prevailing lithium-ion batteries. Such technology is still a ways off, but it’s exactly the kind of thing that could avert a minerals crisis.

Finally, this is a reminder that all consumption has a cost. Every ounce of energy we use needs to come from somewhere. It’s great if your lights run on wind power rather than coal, but that still takes resources. Energy efficiency and behavioral changes can reduce the strain. If you switch your incandescent bulbs to LEDs and turn off your lights when you don’t need them, you will use less electricity in the first place and therefore fewer raw materials.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill before the House would take some important steps toward addressing the looming minerals shortage. It would provide billions of dollars to support the production and recycling of critical minerals in the US. It would cut red tape to make it easier to mine on federal land. It would offer billions of dollars more for energy efficiency and public transportation, so we don’t need to generate so much electricity or put so many vehicles on the road.

Congress must pass that bill, but it won’t be enough. Materials are the first-order problem in fighting climate change, and we need to ramp up supplies as quickly as possible. Just as the chip shortage has snarled the production of cars, a minerals shortage will slow the decarbonization of the economy — time we can’t afford to lose.



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