Visualizing the Metals for Renewable Tech
The energy transition will be mineral intensive and create massive demand for all the metals in renewable tech. Electricity from renewable technology grew at the fastest rate in two decades in 2020, according to a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Consequently, as the pace of the energy transition gains further momentum, the demand for metals will increase. But which ones?
As shown above, the graphic takes data from the World Bank’s Climate Smart Report outlines what metals each renewable technology will require and their overlapping uses.
All the Metals for Renewable Tech
According to the IEA, the number and amount metals used vary by technology. Lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite are important for battery performance, durability, and energy density. Rare earth elements are in the permanent magnets that help spin wind turbines and EV motors.
In particular, a typical electric car requires six times the minerals of a conventional car, and an onshore wind farm requires nine times more minerals than a gas-fired power plant with a similar output. Electricity grids need massive amounts of copper and aluminum, with copper being a keystone for all electricity-related technologies.
Inevitably, more mining must happen to provide the minerals for a renewable energy transition. According to the IEA, reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement would quadruple mineral demand by 2040.
Limited Resources, High Prices
Eventually, a rapid increase in demand for minerals will create opportunities and challenges in meeting sustainability goals. There is a lack of investment in new mine supply which could substantially raise the costs of clean energy technologies.
In fact, the mining industry needs to invest $1.7 trillion over the next 15 years to supply enough metals for renewable tech, according to consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
However, the mining industry is not ready to support an accelerated energy transition. While there are a host of projects at varying stages of development, there are many risks that could increase supply constraints and price volatility:
- High geographical concentration of production
- Long project development lead times
- Declining resource quality
- Growing scrutiny of environmental and social performance
- Higher exposure to climate risks
In addition, some nations are in a better position than others to secure the metals they need for renewable technologies. Attaining these new sources will be vital and valuable for a clean energy future.
Charted: America’s Import Reliance of Critical Minerals
The U.S. is heavily reliant on imports for many critical minerals. How import-dependent is the U.S. for each one, and on which country?
Charting America’s Import Reliance of Key Minerals
The push towards a more sustainable future requires various key minerals to build the infrastructure of the green economy. However, the U.S. is heavily reliant on nonfuel mineral imports causing potential vulnerabilities in the nation’s supply chains.
Specifically, the U.S. is 100% reliant on imports for at least 12 key minerals deemed critical by the government, with China being the primary import source for many of these along with many other critical minerals.
This graphic uses data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to visualize America’s import dependence for 30 different key nonfuel minerals along with the nation that the U.S. primarily imports each mineral from.
U.S. Import Reliance, by Mineral
While the U.S. mines and processes a significant amount of minerals domestically, in 2022 imports still accounted for more than half of the country’s consumption of 51 nonfuel minerals. The USGS calculates a net import reliance as a percentage of apparent consumption, showing how much of U.S. demand for each mineral is met through imports.
Of the most important minerals deemed by the USGS, the U.S. was 95% or more reliant on imports for 13 different minerals, with China being the primary import source for more than half of these.
|Mineral||Net Import Reliance as Percentage of Consumption||Primary Import Source (2018-2021)|
|Graphite (natural)||100%||🇨🇳 China|
|Indium||100%||🇰🇷 Republic of Korea|
|Rare Earths (compounds and metals)||95%||🇨🇳 China|
|Titanium (metal)||95%||🇯🇵 Japan|
|Chromium||83%||🇿🇦 South Africa|
|Aluminum (bauxite)||75%||🇯🇲 Jamaica|
|Platinum||66%||🇿🇦 South Africa|
|Zirconium||50%||🇿🇦 South Africa|
These include rare earths (a group of 17 nearly indistinguishable heavy metals with similar properties) which are essential in technology, high-powered magnets, electronics, and industry, along with natural graphite which is found in lithium-ion batteries.
These are all on the U.S. government’s critical mineral list which has a total of 50 minerals, and the U.S. is 50% or more import reliant for 43 of these minerals.
Some other minerals on the official list which the U.S. is 100% reliant on imports for are arsenic, fluorspar, indium, manganese, niobium, and tantalum, which are used in a variety of applications like the production of alloys and semiconductors along with the manufacturing of electronic components like LCD screens and capacitors.
China’s Gallium and Germanium Restrictions
America’s dependence on imports for various minerals has resulted in a new challenge resulting from China’s announced export restrictions on gallium and germanium that took effect August 1st, 2023. The U.S. is 100% import dependent for gallium and 50% import dependent for germanium.
These restrictions are seen as a retaliation against U.S. and EU sanctions on China which have restricted the export of chips and chipmaking equipment.
Both gallium and germanium are used in the production of transistors and semiconductors along with solar panels and cells, and these export restrictions present an additional hurdle for critical U.S. supply chains of various technologies that include LED lights and fiber-optic systems used for high-speed data transmission.
The restrictions also affect the European Union, which imports 71% of its gallium and 45% of its germanium from China. It’s another stark reminder to the world of China’s dominance in the production and processing of many key minerals.
The announcement of these restrictions has only highlighted the importance for the U.S. and other nations to reduce import dependence and diversify supply chains of key minerals and technologies.
Why Copper Is a Critical Mineral
From the electrical grid to EVs, copper is a key building block for the modern economy.
Why Copper is a Critical Mineral
Copper is critical for everything from the electrical grid to electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies.
But despite copper’s indispensable role in the modern economy, it is not on the U.S. Critical Minerals list.
This infographic from the Copper Development Association shows what makes copper critical, and why it should be an officially designated Critical Mineral.
Copper’s Role in the Economy
Besides clean energy technologies, several industries including construction, infrastructure, and defense use copper for its unique properties.
For example, copper is used in pipes and water service lines due to its resistance to corrosion and durable nature. As the Biden Administration plans to replace all of America’s lead water pipes, copper pipes are the best long-term solution.
Copper’s high electrical conductivity makes it the material of choice for electric wires and cables. Therefore, it is an important part of energy technologies like wind farms, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, and the grid. The demand for copper from these technologies is projected to grow over the next decade:
|Energy Technology||Annual Copper Demand Growth (2021-2035P)||Use of Copper|
|Offshore wind||23.3%||Undersea cables, generators, transformers|
|Battery storage||21.8%||Transformers, wiring|
|Automotive*||14.0%||Batteries, motors, charging infrastructure|
|Solar PV||11.9%||Wiring, heat exchangers|
|Onshore wind||9.8%||Cabling, transformers, substations|
|Electrical transmission||7.2%||Transformers, cables, circuit breakers|
|Electrical distribution||2.7%||Transformers, cables, circuit breakers|
*excludes internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.
Furthermore, policies like the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will bolster copper demand through energy and infrastructure investments.
Given its vital role in numerous technologies, why is copper not on the U.S. Critical Minerals list?
Copper and the Critical Minerals List
The USGS defines a Critical Mineral as having three components, and copper meets each one:
- It is essential to economic and national security.
- It plays a key role in energy technology, defense, consumer electronics, and other applications.
- Its supply chain is vulnerable to disruption.
In addition, copper ore grades are falling globally, from an average of 2% in 1900 to 1% in 2000 and a projected 0.5% in 2030, according to BloombergNEF. As grades continue falling, copper mining could become less economical in certain regions, posing a risk to future supply.
The current USGS list of Critical Minerals, which does not include copper, is based on supply risk scores that use data from 2015 to 2018. According to an analysis by the Copper Development Association using the USGS’ methodology, new data shows that copper meets the USGS’ supply risk score cutoff for inclusion on the Critical Minerals list.
Despite not being on the official list, copper is beyond critical. Its inclusion on the official Critical Minerals list will allow for streamlined regulations and faster development of new supply sources.
The Copper Development Association (CDA) brings the value of copper and its alloys to society, to address the challenges of today and tomorrow. Click here to learn more about why copper should be an official critical mineral.
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