Words by Kevin Beauchamp
“We will need to make and deploy batteries on an unprecedented scale, both to store green energy for when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, and to power the many, many devices that will collect and process data in tomorrow’s smart cities”
Over the coming decades, we need to transform our cities to meet our shared goal of keeping global warming to below 2°C. We broadly know what this will involve and where we want to get to. There is a consensus that we need to switch our power grids to renewable energy, electrify transport networks and buildings, and upgrade them to be smarter and more efficient in their energy use. We also need to transition to a circular economy, in which waste is eliminated and we can meet all of our needs by reusing or recycling existing resources. But therein lies the challenge: we can’t do the second until we have all of the materials we need to create the first. And there is a massive shortfall, particularly in the metals and minerals that are essential to the functioning of almost all green technologies. All of those metals and minerals will need to be extracted from the ground.
Take a typical electric car. It might look similar to a conventional model with an internal combustion engine, but it requires six times the mineral inputs — more copper and more manganese, but also significant amounts of lithium, nickel, cobalt and graphite, as well as rare earth metals. These are crucial for battery performance, and for the permanent magnets that drive electric motors.
Mining typically happens far outside urban areas, so it’s understandable that it’s mostly out of sight, out of mind for city dwellers. If people think about mining at all, they tend to imagine it as a dirty, dangerous, destructive industry that — like fossil fuels — must be scaled back if we are to meet our decarbonization goals. But the modern mineral supply chain is far removed from these images of the past, and the market’s ability to maintain supply in step with demand will have considerable implications for urban policy, and vice versa. Cities are already major consumers of the world’s minerals, and their extractive footprint is only set to expand, in both size and range. As demand is surging, there is a well-recognized disconnect with future supply and it’s not yet clear how this will be resolved.
The growth in electric vehicles is far from the only factor driving global demand. The mineral resources that go into establishing an onshore wind plant are nine times greater than for a gas-fired power plant of equivalent capacity. For offshore wind, the multiplier is even higher. Solar photovoltaics use double the weight of copper per megawatt of generation, and also substantial amounts of silicon. Since 2010, there has been a 50% increase in the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of energy generation as investment in renewables has grown. We will also need to make and deploy batteries on an unprecedented scale, both to store green energy for when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, and to power the many, many devices that will collect and process data in tomorrow’s smart cities. According to the IEA, meeting the Paris Agreement goal of stabilizing global warming below 2°C would mean a quadrupling of mineral requirements for clean energy technologies by 2040. To reach net-zero globally by 2050, there would need to be six times as many mineral inputs in 2040 as there are today.
The mining industry is already under pressure to meet current demand for many minerals and it is not obvious that significant additional reserves and production capacity will be brought on line over the next few years. The supply crunch is causing concern for countries that are reliant on imports, and leading some manufacturers — notably Tesla — to consider investing directly in mining to secure their own supplies of battery minerals. There will undoubtedly need to be a many-fold increase in the supply of lithium and rare earth metals, though as current production is relatively modest, that’s imaginable. In fact, it may be more challenging to keep up with the growing demand for metals like copper and nickel — respectively the cornerstones of electricity-related technologies and stainless steel — which are already produced on a massive scale.