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.
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 Type||Net Global Capacity Added (2016)|
|Renewable (excl. large hydro)||138 GW|
|Large hydro||15 GW|
|Other flexible capacity||5 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.
Visualizing Nuclear Power Production by Country
Nuclear power accounted for 10% of global electricity generated in 2020. Here’s a look at the largest nuclear power producers.
Nuclear Power Production by Country
Nearly 450 reactors around the world supply various nations with nuclear power, combining for about 10% of the world’s electricity, or about 4% of the global energy mix.
But while some countries are turning to nuclear as a clean energy source, nuclear energy generation overall has seen a slowdown since its peak in the 1990s.
The above infographic breaks down nuclear electricity generation by country in 2020 using data from the Power Reactor Information System (PRIS).
Ranked: The Top 15 Countries for Nuclear Power
Just 15 countries account for more than 91% of global nuclear power production. Here’s how much energy these countries produced in 2020:
|Rank||Country||Number of Operating Reactors||Nuclear Electricity Supplied|
|#5||South Korea 🇰🇷||24||152,583||6.0%|
|Rest of the World 🌎||44||207,340||8.1%|
In the U.S., nuclear power produces over 50% of the country’s clean electricity. Additionally, 88 of the country’s 96 operating reactors in 2020 received approvals for a 20-year life extension.
China, the world’s second-largest nuclear power producer, is investing further in nuclear energy in a bid to achieve its climate goals. The plan, which includes building 150 new reactors by 2035, could cost as much as $440 billion.
On the other hand, European opinions on nuclear energy are mixed. Germany is the eighth-largest on the list but plans to shutter its last operating reactor in 2022 as part of its nuclear phase-out. France, meanwhile, plans to expand its nuclear capacity.
Which Countries Rely Most on Nuclear Energy?
Although total electricity generation is useful for a high-level global comparison, it’s important to remember that there are some smaller countries not featured above where nuclear is still an important part of the electricity mix.
Here’s a breakdown based on the share of nuclear energy in a country’s electricity mix:
|Rank||Country||Nuclear Share of Electricity Mix|
|#13||South Korea 🇰🇷||29.6%|
|#17||United States 🇺🇸||19.7%|
|#19||United Kingdom 🇬🇧||14.5%|
European countries dominate the leaderboard with 14 of the top 15 spots, including France, where nuclear power is the country’s largest source of electricity.
It’s interesting to note that only a few of these countries are top producers of nuclear in absolute terms. For example, in Slovakia, nuclear makes up 53.6% of the electricity mix—however, the country’s four reactors make up less than 1% of total global operating capacity.
On the flipside, the U.S. ranks 17th by share of nuclear power in its mix, despite producing 31% of global nuclear electricity in 2020. This discrepancy is largely due to size and population. European countries are much smaller and produce less electricity overall than larger countries like the U.S. and China.
The Future of Nuclear Power
The nuclear power landscape is constantly changing.
There were over 50 additional nuclear reactors under construction in 2020, and hundreds more are planned primarily in Asia.
As countries turn away from fossil fuels and embrace carbon-free energy sources, nuclear energy might see a resurgence in the global energy mix despite the phase-outs planned in several countries around he globe.
How Energy Prices Performed in 2021
Energy commodities surged in 2021 as demand picked up and supply remained constricted, but which fuels flew highest?
How Energy Prices Performed in 2021
A year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world started to reopen and generate insatiable energy demand. Supply shortages and the clean energy transition further fueled the rise of all energy commodities.
Even in a year where markets and commodities performed strongly, energy prices stood out. The energy component of the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI) rose by 59% in 2021, returning more than double any other component in the index.
How Much Did Energy Prices Climb in 2021?
After dipping into negative prices in April of 2020, WTI crude oil had a strong bounce back.
Many of crude oil’s derivative products also increased in price by double digits, resulting in higher gas prices at the pump. The U.S. average retail price for gasoline increased by 45.8% to close at $3.28/gal, while wholesale prices of RBOB gasoline also climbed by 57.8%.
|WTI Crude Oil||56.4%|
|Brent Crude Oil||50.7%|
Natural gas prices in Europe and the UK saw the biggest price increases in 2021, jumping more than 200%.
They were followed by ethanol, a biofuel that oil refiners are required to blend with their products. This requirement, along with the price rises in corn and sugar (ethanol’s primary raw materials around the world), made this hot commodity even more expensive.
Rising Natural Gas Prices Fuel Tension and Unrest
While the U.S. saw increases in its gasoline prices as well, these were mild compared to surges in Europe and elsewhere.
With close to 43% of Europe’s total gas imports coming from Russia, no additional supply was provided during the cold winter months. This was compounded as Germany’s approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has remained in limbo.
So far, 2022 has been a continuation of these trends. For example, liquified petroleum gas (LPG) prices have nearly doubled due to unrest in Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstan government’s decision to lift price controls on LPG (the primary fuel for Kazakh cars) saw prices surge and led to days of protests and Russian intervention.
Coal Stays Strong Despite the Clean Energy Transition
Despite 2021’s emphasis on the clean energy transition, coal prices nearly doubled as the world was unable to shake off its dependence on the fossil fuel.
Even pledges from the COP26 climate change conference, such as China’s to reduce coal consumption after 2025, are not yet having an impact on prices. That’s because the country is still planning to add up to 150 gigawatts of new coal-fired capacity before then.
On the other hand, uranium couldn’t keep up with the price rises of fossil fuels. Although the energy metal had a breakout year as one of the recently renewed hopes for cleaner energy, the outlook for nuclear energy adoption and development is still mixed.
After the surge of energy prices in 2021, nations will need to carefully manage their clean energy transitions to avoid further unsustainable price rises.
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