This year, the sustainable energy sector began seriously addressing one of its most pressing issues: finding enough minerals to manufacture solar panels, wind turbines, and large batteries for energy storage and electric vehicles. It will be important to figure this out if we are to avoid a fossil-fueled ecological cataclysm. In the shift to sustainable energy, it will also be critical for industry and policymakers to progress forward without throwing some communities under the bus.
Clean energy businesses and their suppliers will open up the Earth to hunt for essential minerals like lithium, cobalt, and copper, rather than ripping via landscapes with gas and oil wells and pipelines. As per the International Energy Agency (IEA), an onshore wind turbine consumes nine times higher mineral resources than a gas-fired power station. An electric vehicle requires six times the amount of minerals as a gas-powered vehicle.
Given the recent surge in pledges from countries and enterprises alike to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, it’s past time to examine what that thirst for minerals might cause. It’s already showing to be a minefield excavating up the necessary materials. Protests are erupting in front of proposed mines which no one wants in their neighborhood. The issues that arose in 2021 are only the beginning of a difficult journey ahead.
The IEA delivered a warning in May, stating that the world is not mining enough of the minerals needed to develop a clean energy future. As per the IEA assessment, many major mineral supply chains are vulnerable. “If left neglected, these potential vulnerabilities might make global progress toward a sustainable energy future longer and more expensive – and hence thwart international efforts to combat climate change,” Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, warned at the time. “This is how energy security in the twenty-first century looks.”
The majority of the cobalt used in electric vehicle batteries, for example, originates from the Democratic Republic of Congo. China produces and processes the majority of the rare earth materials used in electric vehicles and wind turbines. As a result, if anything disrupts production in those nations, the rest of the world may be affected. Furthermore, the centralization of power over important resources in a few countries and firms raises the risk of environmental and human rights violations, which have afflicted cobalt and rare earth material supply chains. Investigations into cobalt mines, which are critical suppliers to the electric vehicle battery industry, have already shown serious labor violations.
The COVID-19 epidemic has added to the difficulty by putting even more strain on clean energy supply networks. According to Rystad Energy, increasing shipping and commodity costs could cause solar projects scheduled for 2022 to be delayed or possibly canceled. According to the International Monetary Fund, rising metal prices might stymie the entire shift to renewable energy over the next decade.
As renewable energy overtakes fossil fuels, it will require avoiding the same mistakes that coal, oil, and gas made in communities at significant cost to both people and the environment. And, if policymakers can plan a road to a just shift to renewable energy, they may be able to repair more than the damage our energy consumption has caused to the environment.