Sunday, May 09, 2021

Clean energy minerals shortage: Who knew it could happen?

The race for so-called green energy has spawned another race, one for the minerals needed to make the devices such as solar panels and batteries that produce, store and transmit that energy. A hitherto largely unchallenged economic idea—that we will always have supplies of everything we need at the time we need it at prices we can afford—is in the process of being tested.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world will need to produce six times more of these critical metals than we are producing now to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a target widely held out as an essential goal for avoiding catastrophic effects from climate change. The need for lithium—the key component in lithium batteries that are prized for light weight and the ability to charge quickly—will grow 70 times over the next 20 years, the IEA predicts.

One wonders what the price trajectories of the minerals IEA mentions will look like in the coming years. The long-term charts are concerning for nickel, lithium, cobalt and others since this appears to be just the beginning of the run-up.

The world is experiencing shortages already of many key commodities and manufactured items (such as computer chips). This is, in part, due to lack of investment over the last decade after a general slump in commodity prices following the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and a broad moderation in worldwide economic growth. Certainly, we can expect increased investment in these critical metals. But will it be sufficient to match our dreams for a green technology future?

I cite again an exchange I had way back in 2009 with someone in the computer industry who contended that because indium and gallium—two metals critical to the production of flat-screen technology and solar panels—were already in billions of consumer devices, they must be in plentiful supply. His argument boiled down to this: The people who run the computer industry are really smart and would not have put the industry on a collision course with a scarcity of key resources. Therefore, continuous exponential growth in demand for these and other metals would not be a problem.

But I imagined a much different world, one in which public officials and corporate leaders acted heedlessly based almost solely on the exigencies of the moment. I wrote at the time that the kind of denialism on display with this computer professional was perhaps the hardest to cut through: "If one admits this kind of incompetence is possible, then it implies that we could be hitting limits all over the place which have not been foreseen by corporate and government planners. That would mean a complete readjustment of one's world view and a concentrated dose of fear and uncertainty to boot."

The alarm sounded by the IEA last week is not the first since my 2009 piece. But the alarms are coming more frequently. Just last December I wrote about a report from the European Commission touching on the same issue. Usually, when high government officials start talking publicly about critical shortages, the world is already far along into the shortage. That's when such problems get moved from the back burner—if they are on any burner at all—to the front burner because they are now visible and officials are forced to acknowledge them.

Acknowledgement is not resolution, however. Part of the difficulty in solving this emerging shortage is that the mining required to solve it is unspeakably polluting. This cements my belief that the chief source of problems is solutions to other problems. We have gotten ourselves into such loops because we believe that technology itself equals solutions rather than simply more and different problems. To get out of that loop we would need to go beyond technology to rethinking our entire way of life.

I don't expect the European Commission or the IEA to do that. But the emerging shortage of these critical minerals forces us all at least to confront the possibility that technology will not preserve our precious climate all by itself.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

5 comments:

Lucid said...

"To get out of that loop we would need to go beyond technology to rethinking our entire way of life."

Without a doubt! Whether that rethinking comes about from our own insight, wisdom and awareness or whether it comes from unwelcome circumstantial reality remains to be seen, but I wouldn't place any bets on the former path.

I am reminded of a succinct quote written by Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of America almost 50 years ago. (There is a definite pattern emerging, isn't there?):

“One possibility is just to tag along with the fantasists in government and industry who would have us believe that we can pursue our ideals of affluence, comfort, mobility, and leisure indefinitely. This curious faith is predicated on the notion that we will soon develop unlimited new sources of energy: domestic oil fields, shale oil, gasified coal, nuclear power, solar energy, and so on. This is fantastical because the basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity; it is moral ignorance and weakness of character. We don't know how to use energy, or what to use it for. And we cannot restrain ourselves. Our time is characterized as much by the abuse and waste of human energy as it is by the abuse and waste of fossil fuel energy. Nuclear power, if we are to believe its advocates, is presumably going to be well used by the same mentality that has egregiously devalued and misapplied man- and womanpower. If we had an unlimited supply of solar or wind power, we would use that destructively, too, for the same reasons.”

Unknown said...

Alice Friedemann has always been my go-to source on such issues. Her web site is www.energyskeptic.com.

Anonymous said...

There is no such thing as "net zero". Or "clean energy". Or carbon-free, or any other misleading buzzword in the common vernacular. None accurately describe what is really at work, the burning of fossil fuel to mine the minerals, smelt the ore, machine the parts, distribute the products, install the installations, repair the broken parts - all done by fossil fuel. The sooner the world abandons these misleading terms, the better.

Steve Bull said...

Infinite growth, finite planet; what could possibly go wrong?

Radu Diaconu said...

Mining for blood rare minerals has been the norm, fueling the world bloodliest civil war, CONGO anyone?
Transitioning to a world polluting less - carbon free or zero emissions are a cuckoo's nest in the clouds fantasy - is still possible, but only if we got these minerals to replace burning fossil fuels , nuclear and hydro - which is not green energy, but a very polluting and destructive way to produce energy - with wind and solar produced energy and, transitioning to that, burning methane gas in three ccycle generating thermo plants - for more efficient then anything else, by the way.
Where are those minerals? Well, many hundreds of tonnes are in GARBAGE DUMPS. We need to really start to be serious about recycling ALMOST EVERYTHING. We need to give up on the expensive space race, motor sports and others wasteful uses, like producing weapons of war.
But, eeven better, we need to switch, maybe, to OTHER WAYS TO PRODUCE AND USE THINGS WITHOUT RARE EARTH AND METALS.
How about, instead of millions of solar panels,we construct thermal solar plants that use mirros to concentrate solar rays to heat sodium in order to produce energy?
How about we use solar heaters that just heat water to boiling point and use that steamy water to produce energy in classic thermal power plants?
How about harnessing wind power by deploying bird friendly rotator blades and transform that wind induced speed into friction heat and transfer that heat to a classic thermal power plant, instead of deploying evermore expensive wind generators on higher and bigger towers? I am sure there is a way to do it, human ingenuity has really no limits.
Or how about using batteries that are based on aluminium and other more common elements instead of nickel, cadmium and ion lithium?
How about replacing tantalum, indium , galium in our electronics with something cheaper and more common, accepting in exchange less quality of sound and image? We watch too much TV anyway!
There are ways to bypass these bottlenecks if we just use the cheapest resource we have: BRAIN POWER and COMMON SENSE.
But I guess that will not sell more Teslas, is it not??