IEA urges swift critical minerals action
To ensure minerals are not the bottleneck to climate goals Metal Tech News – May 12, 2021
Last updated 5/18/2021 at 3:15pm
Policymakers must take swift and decisive action to ensure that the minerals critical to the global transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles are not the bottleneck that prevents governments from meeting their climate goals, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency.
"Today, the data shows a looming mismatch between the world's strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realizing those ambitions," said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. "The challenges are not insurmountable, but governments must give clear signals about how they plan to turn their climate pledges into action. By acting now and acting together, they can significantly reduce the risks of price volatility and supply disruptions."
From the massive wind turbines and other generators of low-carbon energy to the EVs that will drive enormous new demand for that power, every facet of a global transition to green energy and e-mobility is going to require a lot more minerals such as copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt, and rare earth elements.
According to the IEA report, "The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions," a typical EV requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional internal combustion engine car and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired plant.
While on the surface, EVs are made up of the same steel, aluminum, polymers, and other materials that are used to build standard ICE vehicles, the batteries that power them and the motors that drive them require minerals and metals that were not previously mined at the massive scale needed for the electric mobility revolution.
IEA estimates that roughly 117 pounds of copper and 54 lb of manganese goes into the average electric vehicle, which is more than double the 49 lb of copper and 25 lb of manganese in an ICE car. On top of that, standard lithium-ion EV batteries need around 146 lb of graphite, 88 lb of nickel, 29 lb of cobalt, and 20 lb of lithium.
Likewise, where a natural gas-fueled power plant needs about 2,425 lb of copper, 106 lb of chromium, and 35 lb of nickel, per megawatt of electrical generation capacity, an onshore plant requires roughly 6,400 lb of copper, 890 lb of nickel, and 1,036 lb of chromium, plus 12,125 lb of zinc, 1,720 lb manganese, 218 lb of molybdenum, and rare earth elements.
In climate-driven scenarios, IEA forecasts that the batteries used to power EVs and store electricity at the grid scale are going to demand at least thirty times more minerals in 2040 than they do today.
The rise of low-carbon power generation to meet climate goals also means a tripling of mineral demand from this sector by 2040. Wind takes the lead, bolstered by material-intensive offshore wind. Solar photovoltaic power follows closely, due to the sheer volume of capacity that is added. The expansion of electricity networks also requires a tremendous amount of copper and aluminum.
Not only is this a massive increase in absolute terms, but IEA points out that as the costs of low-carbon technologies fall, mineral inputs will account for an increasingly important part of the value of key components, making their overall costs more vulnerable to potential mineral price swings.
"Left unaddressed, these potential vulnerabilities could make global progress towards a clean energy future slower and more costly – and therefore hamper international efforts to tackle climate change," Birol said.
Unlike oil – a commodity produced around the world and traded in liquid markets – production and processing of many critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, and rare earth elements are highly concentrated in a handful of countries, with the top three producers accounting for more than 75% of supplies.
The mining of these critical minerals is also challenged by a decline of readily accessible deposits and an increase in the global push to ensure that these minerals are produced at the highest environmental and social standards.
The IEA report provides six key recommendations for policymakers to foster stable supplies of critical minerals to support accelerated clean energy transitions.
• Ensure adequate investment in diversified sources of new supply. Strong signals from policymakers about the speed of energy transitions and the growth trajectories of key clean energy technologies are critical to bringing forward timely investment in the mineral supply chain.
• Promote technology innovation at all points along the value chain. Stepping up research and development for technology innovation on both the demand and production sides can enable more efficient use of materials, allow material substitution, and unlock sizeable new supplies.
• Scale up recycling. Policies can play a pivotal role in preparing for the rapid growth of waste volumes by incentivizing end-of-life product recycling, supporting efficient collection and sorting activities, and funding research and development into new recycling technologies.
• Enhance supply chain resilience and market transparency. Policymakers need to explore a range of measures to improve the resilience of supply chains for different minerals, develop response capabilities to potential supply disruptions and enhance market transparency.
• Mainstream higher environmental, social and governance standards. Efforts to incentivize higher environmental and social performance can increase sustainably and responsibly produced volumes and lower the cost of sourcing them. If players with strong environmental and social performance are rewarded in the marketplace, it can lead to greater diversification among supply.
• Strengthen international collaboration between producers and consumers. An overarching international framework for dialogue and policy coordination among producers and consumers can play a vital role.
"There is no shortage of resources worldwide, and there are sizeable opportunities for those who can produce minerals in a sustainable and responsible manner," Birol penned in a recent article. "Because no single country will be able to solve these issues alone, strengthened international cooperation is essential."
He said IEA has been committed to fostering secure and affordable energy supplies since the wake of severe disruptions to global oil markets in the 1970s, and remains steadfast in helping governments, producers, and consumers tackle the critical challenges as the world transitions to low-carbon energy and transportation.