Senate Hearing Explores Importance of Minerals in Adopting Renewable Energy
The Senate Natural Resources Committee held a hearing this week to discuss the importance of mining and minerals in the development of clean energy technologies but international security and American energy security were clear undercurrents of the discussion.
Growth in domestic production, especially shale oil, is protecting American consumers from the worst of the price shocks after attacks on Saudi oil facilities this week rattled international energy markets. And as renewable energy comes to play an increasingly important role in the economy, observers are worried that threats to the supply of imported minerals like cobalt, lithium, and copper could have a similar impact in the future.
“Minerals are the fundamental building blocks for any modern technology, but they don’t just appear out of thin air,” said Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “As our energy sector transitions to greater use of renewables, we must acknowledge that these technologies are built from materials that come from the ground. Batteries don’t work without lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel; solar panels require silver gallium, indium, tellurium; and wind turbines are not just built from steel, but also aluminum, copper, and rare earth elements.”
Proposals to address global warming through solar and wind power buildup supplemented by battery storage mean that in the future, American and western Europe will have increased demand for these materials. According to a report released in conjunction with the hearing, demand for some of these minerals could increase by as much as 1,200 percent.
“There’s no such thing as a renewable energy machine. All energy machines must be built from non-renewable minerals and all machines wear out and must be disposed of and replaced. This is, not to wax philosophical, society’s central Sisyphean struggle,” said Mark Mills, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute whose work focuses on the policy implications of technology.
“More practically, these two points are the nub of the challenge for policies that propose to radically increase America’s use of energy from wind and solar machines,” he continued. “The clean energy path leads to astounding increases in materials use and dependencies.”
For Britain to achieve its climate goals, for instance, would require half of the world’s annual copper production and significant quantities of cobalt, a byproduct of copper mining.
Much of this material would come from regions of Africa and Asia. In 2016, China announced an action plan, China 2025, calling for its metals industry to achieve global status within the decade. The Chinese government sent both state-owned and private enterprises to locations around the world to develop and hold other countries’ strategic mineral resources.
“Chinese firms traded much-needed capital for control or influence over large shares of the global production of these resources,” said Allison Carlson, Acting Managing Director of FP Analytics.
“With few governments having articulated, let alone implemented, an explicit resource strategy, China is more than a decade ahead in the game,” she continued.
Meanwhile, the United States has been loathe to allow the development of even its limited supplies of these metals in California, New Mexico, Minnesota, and elsewhere. Not only has this hurt the economies of states which could benefit from growth in the mining and mineral development, it has also pushed production overseas, into countries with poor protections for both workers and the environment.
To address these concerns, the Department of Energy is working with industry to develop alternate sources of critical materials by increasing domestic production and processing, working to develop substitutes for some minerals, and by encouraging recycling.
“We are sitting on a goldmine of discarded phones and gadgets with spent li-ion batteries in our desk drawers and junk heaps waiting to be recycled,” said Robert Kang, CEO of Blue Whale Materials, a leading lithium-ion recycling company. He explained that only 5 percent of batteries are recycled in the U.S., compared to 40 percent in Europe. Reprocessing more of these aging devices will help to ease the coming supply crunch.
However, growing recycling on a large scale is a complicated proposition. Many recycling processing sites are located in Asia to be close to manufacturing facilities. Foreign companies are even beginning to collect recycled electronics in the U.S. for processing elsewhere. To support a domestic recycling industry, America may need to first find ways of supporting either domestic device manufacturing or mineral development more broadly.
And that’s a tall order.
“Chinese control over supply chains is not a foregone conclusion but will require us to rethink our approaches,” said Carlson.