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The Raw Materials That Fuel the Green Revolution

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The Raw Materials That Fuel the Green Revolution

The Raw Materials That Fuel the Green Revolution

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Records for renewable energy consumption were smashed around the world in 2017.

Looking at national and state grids, progress has been extremely impressive. In Costa Rica, for example, renewable energy supplied five million people with all of their electricity needs for a stretch of 300 consecutive days. Meanwhile, the U.K. broke 13 green energy records in 2017 alone, and California’s largest grid operator announced it got 67.2% of its energy from renewables (excluding hydro) on May 13, 2017.

The corporate front is also looking promising, and Google has led the way by buying 536 MW of wind power to offset 100% of the company’s electricity usage. This makes the tech giant the biggest corporate purchaser of renewable energy on the planet.

But while these examples are plentiful, this progress is only the tip of the iceberg – and green energy still represents a small but rapidly growing segment. For a full green shift to occur, we’ll need to 10x what we’re currently sourcing from renewables.

To do this, we will need to procure massive amounts of natural resources – they just won’t be the fossil fuels that we’re used to.

Green Metals Required

Today’s infographic comes from Cambridge House as a part of the lead-up to their flagship conference, the Vancouver Resource Investment Conference 2018.

A major theme of the conference is sustainable energy – and the math indeed makes it clear that to fully transition to a green economy, we’ll need vast amounts of metals like copper, silicon, aluminum, lithium, cobalt, rare earths, and silver.

These metals and minerals are needed to generate, store, and distribute green energy. Without them, the reality is that technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries, nuclear reactors, and electric vehicles are simply not possible.

First Principles

How do you get a Tesla to drive over 300 miles (480 km) on just one charge?

Here’s what you need: a lightweight body, a powerful electric motor, a cutting-edge battery that can store energy efficiently, and a lot of engineering prowess.

Putting the engineering aside, all of these things need special metals to work. For the lightweight body, aluminum is being substituted in for steel. For the electric motor, Tesla is using AC induction motors (Model S and X) that require large amounts of copper and aluminum. Meanwhile, Chevy Bolts and soon Tesla will use permanent magnet motors (in the Model 3) that use rare earths like neodymium, dysprosium, and praseodymium.

The batteries, as we’ve shown in our five-part Battery Series, are a whole other supply chain challenge. The lithium-ion batteries used in EVs need lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and many other metals or minerals to function. Each Tesla battery, by the way, weighs about 1,200 lbs (540 kg) and makes up 25% the total mass of the car.

While EVs are a topic we’ve studied in depth, the same principles apply for solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors, grid-scale energy storage solutions, or anything else we need to secure a sustainable future. Solar panels need silicon and silver, while wind turbines need rare earths, steel, and aluminum.

Even nuclear, which is the safest energy type by deaths per TWh and generates barely any emissions, needs uranium in order to generate power.

The Pace of Progress

The green revolution is happening at a breakneck speed – and new records will continue to be set each year.

Over $200 billion was invested into renewables in 2016, and more net renewable capacity was added than coal and gas put together:

Power TypeNet Global Capacity Added (2016)
Renewable (excl. large hydro)138 GW
Coal54 GW
Gas37 GW
Large hydro15 GW
Nuclear10 GW
Other flexible capacity5 GW

The numbers suggest that this is the only start of the green revolution.

However, to fully work our way off of fossil fuels, we will need to procure large amounts of the metals that make sustainable energy possible.

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Energy Shift

The Raw Material Needs of Energy Technologies

Energy technologies are often mineral-intensive. This chart shows how the energy shift is creating massive demand for minerals.

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The Raw Materials in Energy Technologies

Behind every energy technology are the raw materials that power it, support it, or help build it.

From the lithium in batteries to the copper cabling in offshore wind farms, every energy technology harnesses the properties of one or the other mineral. And the world is shifting towards clean energy technologies, which are more mineral-intensive than their fossil-fuel counterparts.

The above infographic uses data from the World Bank’s Climate Action report and charts the 2050 demand for 15 minerals from energy technologies, as a percentage of 2020 production.

Material Demand from Energy Technologies

Energy sources make use of various minerals that offer different properties and functionalities.

For instance, geothermal power plants use steel alloys with large quantities of titanium to withstand high heat and pressure. Similarly, solar panels use silver for its high conductivity, and hydropower plants use steel alloys with chromium, which hardens steel and makes it corrosion-resistant.

The demand for these energy technologies and minerals will grow alongside our energy needs. Here are some of the minerals that are expected to see increasing demand from energy technologies through 2050, relative to current production levels:

Mineral2020 Production (thousand tonnes)2050 Annual Projected Demand (thousand tonnes)2050 Demand as a % of 2020 Production
Lithium82415506%
Cobalt140644460%
Graphite1,1004,590417%
Indium0.91.73192%
Vanadium86138161%
Nickel2,5002,26891%
Silver251560%
Lead4,40078118%
Molybdenum3003311%
Copper20,0001,3787%
Aluminum65,2005,5839%
Manganese18,5006944%
Chromium40,0003660.92%
Iron1,500,0007,5840.51%
Titanium8,2003.440.04%

Lithium, cobalt, and graphite—the key ingredients of EV batteries—will see the largest increases in demand, each requiring more than a 400% increase relative to 2020 production. These figures can look even more substantial once we bear in mind that this demand is only from energy technologies, and these minerals have other uses too.

Indium and vanadium may be among the lesser-known minerals in this list, however, they are important. Indium demand is expected to rise to 1,730 tonnes by 2050—largely because of demand from solar energy. Similarly, vanadium may also see a large spike in demand due to the growing need for energy storage technologies.

On the other end of the spectrum, iron and aluminum have the largest demand figures in absolute terms. However, miners already produce large quantities of these minerals, and their demand in 2050 represents less than 10% of current production levels.

The Supply and Demand Equation

Although some metals are available in abundance within the Earth’s crust, their demand and supply don’t always match up.

For example, falling copper ore grades in Chile are raising concerns over copper’s long-term supply and Citigroup projects a 521,000-tonne copper shortage for 2021. In addition, a large portion of lithium, cobalt, and graphite production occurs in a few regions, putting the battery supply chain at risk of disruptions.

While supply may be in uncertain territory, it’s extremely likely that demand will rise. As the world transitions to clean energy, a sustainable supply of these minerals could be key to meeting the raw material needs of energy technologies.

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Energy Shift

The Advantages of Nuclear Energy in the Clean Energy Shift

The advantages of nuclear energy make it a critical part of our energy mix. But how does it fit into the transition to clean energy?

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advantages of nuclear energy

Nuclear in the Energy Shift

The world’s population is projected to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050 and as the population grows, so will our energy needs.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), global energy consumption will rise 40% by 2050, and electricity consumption will more than double. Meeting the rising demand for energy while protecting the environment will require clean energy sources that are powerful and reliable—and nuclear fits the bill.

The above infographic from Standard Uranium highlights the advantages of nuclear energy and its role in the clean energy transition.

The Advantages of Nuclear Energy

From cleanliness and reliability to safety and efficiency, seven factors make nuclear power essential to a clean future.

1. Carbon-free Energy

Nuclear power plants generate energy through fission, without any fossil fuel combustion.

As a result, nuclear power has one of the lowest lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions among other energy technologies. In fact, the use of nuclear power has reduced over 60 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since 1970.

2. Low Land Footprint

Due to the high energy density of uranium, nuclear power plants can produce large amounts of electricity without taking up much space.

A 1,000 megawatt nuclear facility requires just 1.3 square miles of land. For context, solar and wind farms with equal generating capacity can occupy up to 75 times and 360 times more space, respectively.

3. Reliability

Of all the advantages of nuclear energy, reliability is one of the most important.

Nuclear facilities can generate electricity round the clock, contrary to solar and wind farms that depend on the weather. In 2020, U.S. nuclear power plants were running at maximum capacity 92.5% of the time, surpassing all other energy sources.

4. Resource Efficiency

All sources of energy use raw materials that help build them or support them, besides the fuels.

These can range from metals such as copper and rare earths to materials like concrete and glass. Nuclear power plants have the lowest structural material requirements of all low-carbon energy sources. They’re not only powerful but also efficient in their material consumption.

5. Long-term Affordability

The high capital costs of nuclear facilities are often cited as a potential issue. However, this can change over time.

In fact, nuclear reactors with 20-year lifetime extensions are the cheapest sources of electricity in the United States. Furthermore, the average U.S. nuclear reactor is 39 years old, and 88 of the 96 reactors in the country are approved for 20-year extensions.

6. Safety

Although conventional beliefs might suggest otherwise, nuclear is actually one of the safest sources of energy.

Energy sourceDeaths per 10 TWhType
Coal246Fossil fuel
Oil184Fossil fuel
Biomass46Renewable
Natural Gas28Fossil fuel
Nuclear0.7Non-renewable
Wind0.4Renewable
Hydro0.2Renewable
Solar0.2Renewable

Even including disasters and accidents, nuclear energy accounts for one of the lowest number of deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity.

7. Economic Contribution

Apart from the above advantages of nuclear energy, the U.S. nuclear industry also plays a significant role in the economy.

  • The nuclear industry directly employs 100,000 people, and creates thousands of indirect jobs.
  • A typical nuclear power plant generates $40 million in annual labor income.
  • The nuclear industry adds $60 billion to U.S. GDP annually.

Nuclear is not only clean, safe, and reliable but it also has positive ramifications on the economy.

Nuclear Power for the Future

Transitioning to a cleaner future while increasing energy production may be difficult without new nuclear sources—largely because other renewable energy sources aren’t as powerful, reliable, or efficient.

As the energy shift ramps up, nuclear power will be an essential part of our clean energy mix.

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