Lithium, Cobalt, and Rare Earths The Post-Petroleum Resource Race and What to Make of It

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Michael Klare, Tom Dispatch, May 20, 2021

Thanks to its very name — renewable energy — we can picture a time in the not-too-distant future when our need for non-renewable fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal will vanish. Indeed, the Biden administration has announced a breakthrough target of 2035 for fully eliminating U.S. reliance on those non-renewable fuels for the generation of electricity. That would be accomplished by “deploying carbon-pollution-free electricity-generating resources,” primarily the everlasting power of the wind and sun.

With other nations moving in a similar direction, it’s tempting to conclude that the days when competition over finite supplies of energy was a recurring source of conflict will soon draw to a close. Unfortunately, think again: while the sun and wind are indeed infinitely renewable, the materials needed to convert those resources into electricity — minerals like cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, and the rare-earth elements, or REEs — are anything but. Some of them, in fact, are far scarcer than petroleum, suggesting that global strife over vital resources may not, in fact, disappear in the Age of Renewables.

To appreciate this unexpected paradox, it’s necessary to explore how wind and solar power are converted into usable forms of electricity and propulsion. Solar power is largely collected by photovoltaic cells, often deployed in vast arrays, while the wind is harvested by giant turbines, typically deployed in extensive wind farms. To use electricity in transportation, cars and trucks must be equipped with advanced batteries capable of holding a charge over long distances. Each one of these devices uses substantial amounts of copper for electrical transmission, as well as a variety of other non-renewable minerals. Those wind turbines, for instance, require manganese, molybdenum, nickel, zinc, and rare-earth elements for their electrical generators, while electric vehicles (EVs) need cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, and rare earths for their engines and batteries.

At present, with wind and solar power accounting for only about 7 percent of global electricity generation and electric vehicles making up less than 1 percent of the cars on the road, the production of those minerals is roughly adequate to meet global demand. If, however, the U.S. and other countries really do move toward a green-energy future of the kind envisioned by President Biden, the demand for them will skyrocket and global output will fall far short of anticipated needs.

According to a recent study by the International Energy Agency (IEA), “The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions,” the demand for lithium in 2040 could be 50 times greater than today and for cobalt and graphite 30 times greater if the world moves swiftly to replace oil-driven vehicles with EVs. Such rising demand will, of course, incentivize industry to develop new supplies of such minerals, but potential sources of them are limited and the process of bringing them online will be costly and complicated. In other words, the world could face significant shortages of critical materials. (“As clean energy transitions accelerate globally,” the IEA report noted ominously, “and solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars are deployed on a growing scale, these rapidly growing markets for key minerals could be subject to price volatility, geopolitical influence, and even disruptions to supply.”)

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