The clean-energy transition will require huge amounts of key minerals like lithium and cobalt, used to make cleantech like batteries & wind turbines. They are often mined under socially & environmentally dubious conditions. Is it a new resource curse?
This is a nice overview and I look forward to more details. It is interesting to me that nickel gets mentioned, but doesn't make it into the discussion like cobalt and lithium seem to always do. In my view, nickel is the worst of these. This is because its increased demand in renewables, especially EVs, accelerates strip-mining highly unique and biodiverse biota in Indonesia and the Philippines - plus the runoff goes onto coral reefs. For reasons I've laid out in my overview (Electric Vehicles: The Dirty Nickel Problem https://cleantechnica.com/2020/09/27/electric-vehicles-the-dirty-nickel-problem/), I think nickel should be just plain avoided. Or, if you have only 4 minutes (and like music!), there is this: So You Want An Electric Car? https://youtu.be/4sBN22UnAv8.
This is a very good summary - I look forward to the next chapters. I'm not clear why the IEA left iron and aluminium out of their comparison of EV and ICE vehicle mineral inputs and not sure what minerals they are talking of when they say: “A typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car”. This phrase has been seized upon by, on the one hand, the fossil fuel apologists and on the other the catastrophist greenie wing who paint EV and renewables tech generally as a threat almost on a par with fossil fuels.
A mid range Tesla weighs some 250 Kg. more than a similar sized ICE vehicle (Tesla 3 1750 kg, Toyota Camry 1495 kg) with most of the extra weight, and mineral content, in the battery. Aside from the engine, radiator and the exhaust system most of the other mineral contents are the same in the ICE V as in an EV. An internal combustion engine weighs about 130 kg (4 cyl) to 320 kg (V8, 6 cyl diesel), made up mostly of iron and aluminum with minor chromium, nickel and vanadium.
When looking at the clean energy transition we should also be considering other aspects of the energy and minerals demand spectrum. Vaclav Smil in his book "Growth" points out that the 72 million vehicles sold in 2015 had 180 times the mass but embodied only some 7 times the energy used to produce about 2.2 billion smart phones, tablets and notebooks that year. The phones, etc. have a short life of about 2-3 years so that the embodied energy use per year for portable electronic devices approaches that of vehicles. The recycling rate for consumer electronics, even though they contain many exotic minerals of high value, is abysmally low and for vehicles the recycling rate is quite high.
I have some comments on the 'dirty nickel' problem which I'll attach as a response to Cliff Rice's commentary below.
Excellent podcast, and I was delighted to see the informative graphs that helped explain things I missed. In a follow-up podcast, please let us about the lithium in the Salton Sea area in California, which is generating a lot of discussion now, both its potential and about the pollution and other hazards involved, especially to nearby communities.
I think one very important differences between this and oil is that for oil there isn't a replacement. If a country used a certain amout of oil to operate it would continue to require that amount for years, even decades.
While for these materials there are mostly credible replacements. For batteries, LFP contains only lithium unlike the (for now) more common NMC/NCA that contains more rare and problematic minerals. Sodium batteries aren't here yet, but look promising and contains no lithium.
While rare-earth metals can create some fantastic permanent magnet motors/generators there are other motors/generators that don't use them. These are used widely today, so they are competetive. Similarly some types of design use much less copper than others.
Our ability to move away from problematic minerals are much better than it ever was for oil. Of course that does not mean we will not have short term problems. But still. Much better.
I just read somewhere that there's a very significant amount of new aluminum required for the frames for all these solar panels. And given aluminum's high energy requirement for new creation that's something that will also increase CO2 a bunch till we green the power grids. How does that factor into the above ?
one fun factoid, it had a quote of 75% of all aluminum every made is still in use today, due to it's ridiculously low cost to recycle.
Extremely helpful. Thx.
One comment I’ve heard recently from people on the right is that there is child labor associated with mining and EVs. I assume this criticism is in bad faith, so maybe I shouldn’t even worry about responding, but my thought is, 1) this is already occurring for gas powered vehicles and 2) obviously this is something to address and make sure it doesn’t happen. Are there any other retorts ya’ll can think of that would be important for me to emphasize if I have this discussion with people?
"To [reach net zero by 2050/hold warming beneath 1.5°C], it must radically ramp up production of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, electric vehicles (EVs), electrolyzers for hydrogen, and power lines."
David, it's already impossible hold warming beneath 1.5°C - or even 2.0°C - and there's plenty of evidence that "radically ramp[ing] up production of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, electric vehicles (EVs), electrolyzers for hydrogen, and power lines" will make things even worse.
According to the "Grandfather of Climate Change Awareness", Columbia University climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, it isn't due to lack of minerals but misplaced faith in renewable energy:
"The underlying reason for the great overshoot of the 2°C scenario is failure of the world to develop a clean energy system for electricity. Instead, the West – or at least the liberal West – has adopted the fantasy of 100% renewable energy within decades, in which both nuclear power and fossil fuels are eliminated. Further, the West has instructed the developing world that it, too, must follow this fantasy. Consequently, President Clinton terminated research and development on nuclear power in the United States after his election in 1992. Germany, as the host nation for COP6 in Bonn in 2001, excluded nuclear power as a clean development mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol. Now, financing for fossil fuel or nuclear power plants is being denied to developing countries, even though the West used those energies to raise its own standards of living and continues to use those energies as needed to maintain living standards.
"The 100% renewables vision was spurred mainly by Amory Lovins, who correctly projected in the 1970s that energy efficiency would allow less energy use than predicted by the Energy Information Agency. However, his expectation that all fossil fuels, nuclear power and large hydro could be replaced by soft renewables is debunked by real world data. Real world utility experts conclude that renewable energies must be complemented by reliable baseload electricity generation available 24/7 – either fossil fuels or nuclear. For the sake of climate, the partner of renewables had better by nuclear power, not fossil fuels.
"The Big Climate Short has been handed to young people. They are inheriting an energy and climate system in which large climate change is now unavoidable. The United Nations and government leaders pretend that global warming, now at 1.2°C, can be curtailed with little additional warming. Capable scientists with an understanding of climate and energy know that this is pure, unadulterated bulls**t. Politicians who claim paltry successes while ignoring the elephants in the room must be called out. We have sold our young people short."
Also, comparing LLNL's 2017 Energy Flow Chart with your 2020 update shows that in three years natural gas consumption for electricity had increased by 31%:
An environmental boon? No, the "clean energy transition" is an unfolding environmental disaster.
The world’s economy & cultures are saturated with fossil fuels. Adverse climate effects are bad enough, but the constantly gyrating instability of energy pricing is in itself a kind of insecurity inducing social poison, exploited by BigOil to make money & justified by the rationale that this is simply how capital free markets work. Energy market-makers & manipulators like Enron & cartels make money from both real and illusory short-term scarcity; for them, scarcity is a permanently exploitable feature, not a bug. It does appear, and we can only hope, that the shift to widely distributed, abundant, safe, reliable, inexpensive renewable energy will at some point, perhaps by 2050, result in a significant reduction in the levels of social & economic disruption & anxiety inherent in our current fossil fuel dependent economy. RE: Minerals, It’s interesting to see that existing energy producing geothermal wells are now being considered as lithium sources.
I have two concerns: 1. Mining is the dirtiest of all industries, and one can include fossil fuel extraction in this since it is actually a form of mining. Currently in the U.S., the environmental pollution resulting from mining appears to be poorly regulated. How is the world going to deal with the environmental impacts resulting from the mining of minerals that are needed for renewable energy? 2. What is the lifetime of renewable energy infrastructure? How long do wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries for electric vehicles last before they must be replaced? Will the supply of minerals crucial for renewable energy infrastructure be sufficient over the long term? I'm not against the transition to renewable energy, but I think we need to analyze in great detail what the environmental costs will be and avoid unpleasant surprises down the road! I think there is too much wishful thinking about renewable energy at the moment.