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:
|Mineral||2020 Production (thousand tonnes)||2050 Annual Projected Demand (thousand tonnes)||2050 Demand as a % of 2020 Production|
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.
What Electricity Sources Power the World?
Coal still leads the charge when it comes to electricity, representing 35% of global power generation.
What Powered the World in 2022?
In 2022, 29,165.2 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity was generated around the world, an increase of 2.3% from the previous year.
In this visualization, we look at data from the latest Statistical Review of World Energy, and ask what powered the world in 2022.
Coal is Still King
Coal still leads the charge when it comes to electricity, representing 35.4% of global power generation in 2022, followed by natural gas at 22.7%, and hydroelectric at 14.9%.
Over three-quarters of the world’s total coal-generated electricity is consumed in just three countries. China is the top user of coal, making up 53.3% of global coal demand, followed by India at 13.6%, and the U.S. at 8.9%.
Burning coal—for electricity, as well as metallurgy and cement production—is the world’s single largest source of CO2 emissions. Nevertheless, its use in electricity generation has actually grown 91.2% since 1997, the year when the first global climate agreement was signed in Kyoto, Japan.
Renewables on the Rise
However, even as non-renewables enjoy their time in the sun, their days could be numbered.
In 2022, renewables, such as wind, solar, and geothermal, represented 14.4% of total electricity generation with an extraordinary annual growth rate of 14.7%, driven by big gains in solar and wind. Non-renewables, by contrast, only managed an anemic 0.4%.
The authors of the Statistical Review do not include hydroelectric in their renewable calculations, even though many others, including the International Energy Agency, consider it a “well-established renewable power technology.”
With hydroelectric moved into the renewable column, together they accounted for over 29.3% of all electricity generated in 2022, with an annual growth rate of 7.4%.
France’s Nuclear Horrible Year
Another big mover in this year’s report was nuclear energy.
In addition to disruptions at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, shutdowns in France’s nuclear fleet to address corrosion found in the safety injection systems of four reactors led to a 4% drop in global use, year-over-year.
The amount of electricity generated by nuclear energy in that country dropped 22% to 294.7 TWh in 2022. As a result, France went from being the world’s biggest exporter of electricity, to a net importer.
Powering the Future
Turning mechanical energy into electrical energy is a relatively straightforward process. Modern power plants are engineering marvels, to be sure, but they still work on the same principle as the very first generator invented by Michael Faraday in 1831.
But how you get the mechanical energy is where things get complicated: coal powered the first industrial revolution, but heated the planet in the process; wind is free and clean, but is unreliable; and nuclear fission reliably generates emission-free electricity, but also creates radioactive waste.
With temperature records being set around the world in the summer, resolving these tensions isn’t just academic and next year’s report could be a crucial test of the world’s commitment to a clean energy future.
How Mine Permitting Delays Impact the Transition to a Green Economy
Currently, the U.S. has a backlog of more than 280 mining projects awaiting permits.
Mine Permitting Delays and the Transition to a Green Economy
Minerals are essential components in many of our daily-use products, such as cell phones, laptops, and cars.
In fact, every American uses nearly 40,000 pounds of newly mined materials each year.
In the United States, however, the current permitting process makes it difficult for businesses to invest in the extraction and processing of minerals, such as copper.
This graphic by Northern Dynasty explores the untapped potential of mineral resources in America.
Copper, a Critical Material
In 2023 the U.S. Department of Energy officially added copper to its critical materials list, following the examples of the European Union, Japan, India, Canada, and China.
Copper is a highly efficient conductor of electricity and is considered vital for clean energy technologies such as solar, wind energy, and electric vehicles.
Green energy-related copper demand is expected to increase by nearly 600% by 2030. In this scenario, the copper market could see an annual deficit of up to about 1.5 million tonnes by 2035.
Despite having more than 53 million tons of copper reserves, the U.S. imports 45% of its copper from other countries.
This is the highest level of import reliance in over 30 years. One of the biggest reasons for this is the country’s mine permitting process.
A Rigorous Mine Permitting Process
Mines are large-scale projects that demand extensive research and policies. As a result, mining projects can take 16 years, or more, to start production.
Currently, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management—which regulates land use in the country—has a permitting backlog of more than 280 mining projects.
In addition, environmental activists have adopted a “not in my backyard” stance towards domestic mining. As a result, companies have often had to resort to litigation to make any progress in the permitting process.
“Activists have weaponized the government bodies that are essential to the safe and responsible development of domestic mines,” says Michael Westerlund, VP Investor Relations at Northern Dynasty Minerals.
The company owns the largest undeveloped copper deposit in the world, named Pebble, in Alaska. Pebble and other five major copper projects totaling over 11 billion tonnes in copper resources have been delayed because of the Federal permitting process.
The Largest Undeveloped Copper Deposit in the World
The Pebble Project has been through a roller coaster of regulatory activity for the past 15 years.
Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the depositing of mining waste near the mining project in Alaska, citing potential harm to the local sockeye salmon industry.
However, the veto directly contradicts findings from the Federal government that concluded that mining and fishing could coexist in the region.
“Alaska does resource development better than any other place on the planet, and our opportunities to show the world a better way to extract our resources should not be unfairly preempted by the Federal Government”
–Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy
Projects like Pebble can provide significant economic benefits and support the U.S. transition to a greener future. With the current regulatory uncertainty for U.S. developers, where the much-needed supply of copper will come from is unknown.
Click here to learn more about Pebble.
Electrification2 years ago
Ranked: The Top 10 EV Battery Manufacturers
Real Assets3 years ago
Visualizing China’s Dominance in Rare Earth Metals
Real Assets2 years ago
The World’s Top 10 Gold Mining Companies
Electrification1 year ago
The Key Minerals in an EV Battery
Misc2 years ago
All the Metals We Mined in One Visualization
Misc2 years ago
All the World’s Metals and Minerals in One Visualization
Real Assets3 years ago
What is a Commodity Super Cycle?
Real Assets3 years ago
How the World’s Top Gold Mining Stocks Performed in 2020