Critical minerals for green energy may become scarce, new report warns

Scott Tong May 5, 2021
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The world’s need for lithium for batteries may surge 75-fold in the next three decades. David McNew/AFP via Getty Images

Critical minerals for green energy may become scarce, new report warns

Scott Tong May 5, 2021
Heard on:
The world’s need for lithium for batteries may surge 75-fold in the next three decades. David McNew/AFP via Getty Images
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An electric vehicle requires six times the critical minerals of a gas car. The world’s need for lithium, used in batteries, may surge 75-fold in the next two decades, Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Association, said in a webinar Wednesday.

Those are some of the natural resource requirements for a green energy transition, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency, which warns of a looming mismatch between demand for these materials and supply.

“What if we don’t pay enough attention to critical minerals, what could happen?” Birol said. “The prices of those critical minerals would increase sharply, and the clean energy transitions may well be costlier and therefore slower than we’d like to see.”

Birol suggested governments consider stockpiling key elements, similar to the way they carry strategic reserves of oil today.

“Some countries would build voluntary strategic stocks for some of the critical minerals,” he said.

It would be a huge lift to bring enough copper, lithium, cobalt, nickel and rare-earth elements out of the ground for a global green transition, said Michael Klare, emeritus professor of security studies at Hampshire College and the author of “The Race for What’s Next.”

“A lot of the mines are located in places that’s difficult to get access to,” Klare said. “They’re in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has all kinds of political problems and environmental problems.”

This is not just a mining issue. Critical minerals need to be processed and purified, an industrial sector where China leads and America lags. But the Biden White House infrastructure plan would put billions into this processing space.

“Just as the U.S. government gave a loan to Tesla to open their first factory, we should be thinking about who are the players out there that the U.S. government could support in lithium processing, in rare-earth processing,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, climate and energy professor at Tufts University and author of “Energy’s Digital Future: Harnessing Innovation for American Resilience and National Security.”

These are essential businesses for the long-term future, Jaffe said.

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