Sunday, October 01, 2023

The clean energy economy turns out to be the metals energy economy

A very observant longtime friend of mine opined recently that the clean energy economy is really just a metals energy economy where metals provide the basis for energy production and transmission. The idea that this emerging economy is going to be light on resources compared to our current fossil-fuel based economy is a fantasy.

And you don't have to take his word for it. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has attempted to project the needs of this new economy. The IEA's report entitled "The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions" contains some eye-popping statistics that drive home just how much in the way of metals might be needed in order to supply the builders of this clean energy infrastructure.

Using two scenarios the IEA estimated that growth in demand coming from clean energy industries just for battery-related minerals will explode by 2040 relative to 2020:

1. Lithium: Between 13 to 42 times.

2. Graphite: Between 8 and 25 times.

3. Cobalt: Between 6 to 21 times.

4. Nickel: Between 6 to 19 times.

5. Manganese: Between 3 to 8 times.

Demand related specifically to renewable energy and its infrastructure is projected to increase for the following minerals under two scenarios:

1. Rare earth elements (REEs): Between 3.4 and 7.3 times more. REEs are important for electric motors and generators.

2. Molybdenum: Between 2.2 to 2.9 times more. Molybdenum is used in solar and wind power because of its ability to transmit electricity well.

3. Copper - Between 1.7 to 2.7 times more. Copper, of course, has long been used in electrical motors and wires.

4. Silicon - Between 1.8 to 2.3. Silicon, of course, is a semiconductor widely used in solar panels. Silicon is the second most abundant element in the earth's crust after oxygen, so it is widely available. However, it takes considerable energy and a multi-step process to produce silicon of sufficient purity for semiconductor and other applications.

These lists are, of course, not complete. Here are two more examples. Presumably, aluminum use will grow in order to lighten new vehicles thus reducing their energy use. And, startup companies are trying to encourage adoption of iron powder as fuel that can be recycled and burned again.

What is not often discussed is the vast number of new mines which will have to be discovered, developed and operated in the coming years. It is not certain enough deposits of sufficient concentration to justify mine development will be found to supply these huge new sources of demand.

And when economically viable deposits are found, their development and operation will consume a large amount of liquid fuels. Currently, almost all of those fuels are derived from oil and to a much smaller extent natural gas. This mine build-out will result in significant ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases. And the refining of these metals will require copious amount of energy to achieve the high temperatures required. The advocates of this build-out say that eventually new nonpolluting fuels will be substituted for petroleum- and natural gas-based fuels. The key word here is "eventually."

A World Bank report provides the following nifty chart which maps metals to their use in the emerging clean energy economy. It makes clear why the clean energy economy is really a metals energy economy that isn't going to be as clean as many think.

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,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, 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 can be contacted at


Anonymous said...

Art Berman said it best. We have to reduce our use of all energy not just fossil fuels if we hope to slow climate change. That’s not in the plan.

Anonymous said...

Чиста енергія від джерела(валова- затрачена на видобуток) іде на видобуток копалин, очистку,
концентрацію, плавку, втілення у виробі, транспортування на всіх етапах, встановленню та "підключенню", обслуговуванню, базального функціонування тощо.
Концентрована енергія викопного палива розсіюється в процесі всіх етапів. Яку чисту енергію можна отримати від такого приладу створення енергії без дотацій і субсидування?
Про це чітко вказав Г. Одум. Це утопія.

Radu Diaconu said...

Let us talk about aluminium. The process by which is obtained is a massive use of fossil energetic resources. First, you have to find bauxite(mostly in tropical regions), then strip copious amounts of vegetation and soil to create an open cut mine in order to extract bauxite. Then you have to transport to the alumina refinery. Around 10 metric tones of bauxite to produce 1 tone of calcinated alumina. You have to burn copious amounts of coal and natural gas and use chemicals to refine the bauxite, PLUS burn huge amounts of diesel to transport it in bulk ships. From the refinery alumina is transported by train or ship to the aluminium plant. 4 tones of alumina, plus all sorts of chemicals, and massive electricity gives you 1 metri ton of aluminium. Molten aluminum is then poured into bars, slabs, coils. The it is taken to the mill, where you again apply vast amounts of natural gas and electricity to transform primary aluminium into diverse products: sheets, car parts etc.
Of course, you CAN recycle aluminium, as it is A FOREVER RECYCLABLE METAL. But it does not come free. you have to collect the waste, sort it on categories and alloys, melted it and apply metals and chemicals to creat useful alloys, as most of aluminium today is actually alloyed. That implies use of magnesium, silica, copper etc. NOT small amounts.
The industry has desperately try to reduce the use of electricity. But higher prices id driving most of plants to bankruptcy, just when you need aluminium most.
Also, the pollution and the waste from the aluminium industry is NO JOKE.
ECOLOGICAL ALUMINIUM INDUSTRY, with zero waste and emissions?? GIVE A BREAK, SO I CAN PUKE...fat chance in hell for that to happen.

Steve Bull said...

But try convincing the religious zealots of 'clean energy' that their bargaining chips are as problematic as that which they are hoping to replace (which, of course, can't be done for a variety of reasons). They have bought into the mantra/marketing/propaganda hook, line, and sinker and certainly don't want their illusions destroyed. What they don't seem to understand is that the 'solution' being proposed does zero to address our overarching predicament of ecological overshoot and, in fact, exacerbates it with expanded ecological systems destruction. But not to worry. Nature will take care of this situation soon enough...

Anonymous said...

Converting from fuel based generation to technology based generation (solar and wind) reduces global primary energy supply needs by 75%. We don't need to replace the 65% lost to the waste heat of combustion nor the 10% spent on perpetual extract, refine, transport.

Kurt Cobb said...

Google translate provide the following translation for the second comment:

Clean energy from the source (gross - spent on extraction) goes to the extraction of minerals, cleaning, concentration, melting, embodiment in a product, transportation at all stages, installation and "connection", maintenance, basal functioning, etc.

Concentrated fossil fuel energy is dissipated in the process of all stages. What clean energy can be obtained from such an energy-creating device without subsidies and subsidies?
This was clearly indicated by G. Odum. This is a utopia.