Chapter 4A The Minerals Challenge for Renewable Energy

JurisdictionUnited States
Chapter 4A The Minerals Challenge for Renewable Energy

Mark Squillace
University of Colorado Law School
Boulder, CO

MARK SQUILLACE joined the faculty at the University of Colorado Law School in 2005 where he served as the Director of the Natural Resources Law Center until 2013. Before joining the Colorado law faculty, Professor Squillace taught at the University of Toledo College of Law where he was named the Charles Fornoff Professor of Law and Values. Professor Squillace has also taught at the University of Wyoming College of Law, and at Wyoming he served a three-year term as the Winston S. Howard Professor of Law. He is a former Fulbright scholar and the author or co-author of numerous articles and books on natural resources and environmental law. In 2000, Professor Squillace took a leave from law teaching to serve as Special Assistant to the Solicitor at the U.S. Department of the Interior. In that capacity he worked directly with the Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, on a wide range of legal and policy issues.



The future of renewable energy will depend, to a significant extent, on our ability to access certain critical minerals1 that are necessary for the production of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles (EVs), and batteries for both vehicles and energy storage. For that reason, our success in achieving rapid deployment of renewables is necessarily tied to our success in accessing those minerals when and where they are needed. Recycling can and should play a significant role in making some of these minerals more


readily available, thereby minimizing the need for new mining.. Research and technology innovations will also play a prominent role in helping to shift the renewables industry away from scarce and problematic minerals like cobalt. But new mining operations, both here in the United States and in other countries around the world, will also play an increasingly prominent role.

This paper asks how mineral sourcing can be carried out in the most responsible way. More specifically, it addresses three issues involving the minerals challenge for renewable energy. First, it identifies the key minerals that are or may be needed to deploy the most important renewable energy technologies, including PV solar, wind, and batteries. Second, it describes the challenges in gaining access to adequate supplies of these minerals while also protecting the environmental and social values that are driving the renewables push. Finally, it recommends strategies that will help advance the transition to renewables while minimizing the impacts to the environment and society from the production and deployment of renewable technologies.


Before assessing future demand for the minerals that will be needed to scale renewable energy deployment at levels necessary to meet the climate challenge, it is important to acknowledge that technological advancements are likely to alter both the type and quantity of minerals needed for particular energy systems. This is especially true for batteries used for both electric vehicles and energy storage. For example, cobalt is a key element needed for most lithium ion batteries today but multiple, well-funded players are engaged in substantial research focused on reducing or eliminating cobalt in these batteries. These efforts have achieved some level of success and further advancements seem likely.2 Moreover, batteries used to store energy are likely to evolve in different ways to take advantage of the fact that they do not have the same need to minimize their size and weight. Iron air and zinc air batteries in particular show promise in providing substantial storage capacity with commonly available minerals, albeit at a size and weight that would not be practical for electric vehicles. Proponents of iron-air batteries, for example, claim that this technology can deliver electricity for 100 hours at less than 1/10th the cost of lithium ion batteries.3 A 100 MW iron-air pilot project for Minnesota-based Great River Energy is set to be commissioned by 2023 and should help determine the viability of this technology.4


So, even as we identify the minerals that will be needed to fuel the renewable energy economy, we must recognize the possibility and perhaps the likelihood that the technologies themselves will evolve in ways that will reduce, perhaps substantially, the demand for minerals that are the most costly, the most difficult to source, and the most problematic from the perspective of the physical and social environment. So, any effort to identify the minerals needed to support rapid renewable energy deployment must recognize the high degree of uncertainty that accompanies those claims. Even if true, however, it seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that renewable technologies will require additional mineral resources, and that some of those minerals may be difficult to source at levels that are necessary to meet the challenge of transitioning rapidly to a renewable energy economy. With that in mind, the following section addresses current expectations regarding the mineral needs for three key clean energy platforms: (1) PV solar panels; (2) onshore and offshore wind turbines;; and (3) batteries both for EVs and for energy storage.

A. The Minerals Needed for PV Solar

The dominant types of solar panels available today are monocrystalline and polycrystalline silicon. These currently comprise about 95% of the market.5 All PV solar panels are comprised primarily of glass framed in aluminum. The other key minerals used to produce these panels are relatively abundant and include copper, silver, and silicon.6 New types of panels that rely more heavily on certain critical minerals are becoming more prevalent, including thin-film panels such as cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium gallium selenide (CIS/CIGS).7 Advances in PV solar technology has led to a significant reduction in the use of silver and polysilicon, which are among the most expensive materials used to produce solar panels, and further reductions in the use of these materials for solar panels are expected.8 In addition, much research is ongoing on the prospect for substituting perovskite


cells for silicon because they are cheaper to make, potentially more efficient for producing energy, and can be employed more flexibly to generate electricity.9

B. The Minerals Needed for Onshore and Offshore Wind

Most wind turbines employ a standard three blade design on towers that range from 80 to 120 meters in height. The towers are composed primarily of steel but the various components of a turbine require significant quantities of copper, aluminum, concrete and carbon.10 About 20% of wind turbines - both onshore and offshore - use direct-drive permanent magnet generators (PMG) that use the rare earth11 elements neodymium and dysprosium. These direct-drive PMGs eliminate the need for a gearbox, which reduces the cost of maintenance. This feature is especially welcome for offshore wind turbines where maintenance costs are highest.12

C. The Minerals Needed for Batteries and Electric Vehicles

Of all the renewable energy technologies, batteries are likely to see the most dramatic changes over the coming decades. Thus, as previously discussed, predicting the demand for particular minerals used to produce batteries is fraught with uncertainty. At present, the renewable sector is focused on batteries for two distinct needs - vehicle transport and energy storage. At the time of this writing, the batteries used for these two applications tend to be similar and even interchangeable. Over time, however, these technologies seem likely to diverge, primarily because the need for lightweight batteries, so critical for the transport sector, does not extend to battery storage needs. In addition to batteries, EVs themselves require


minerals not present in conventional vehicles. All three applications - minerals for vehicle batteries, minerals for storage batteries, and minerals for electric vehicles are briefly considered below.

1. Minerals for Electric Vehicle Batteries

Electrical vehicles (EV) batteries have received the most attention and are rapidly evolving. The dominant EV battery in use today is the lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery but the chemistry of these batteries may change dramatically over time. Ongoing research efforts aim to reduce their cost, extend their useful life, minimize the use of problematic minerals and address safety concerns.13

The chief components of a Li-ion battery are the anode and cathode with an electrolyte that allows the flow of ions from the negative, electron-releasing anode to the positive, electron capturing cathode.14 The anode is typically made of graphite with a copper foil current collector, while the cathode, which comprises about 90% of the material value, uses different chemistries that include Nickel Manganese Cobalt (NMC), Lithium Iron (Ferro) Phosphate (LFP), Nickel Cobalt Aluminum (NCA) and Lithium Manganese Oxide (LMO).15

NMC is the most popular Li-ion battery type for passenger vehicles, followed by NCA. Both of these batteries use cobalt and nickel, which are problematic from a sourcing perspective. About 70% of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which tolerates child labor and other human rights abuses especially at artisanal and small-scale mines.16 Nickel is prized in EV batteries because it increases the density of batteries thereby increasing the vehicle range.17 Nickel can also reduce or eliminate the need for cobalt, although to achieve similar energy densities the battery may require more nickel.18 While nickel production is more widespread across the globe,19 the indiscriminate disposal of mine tailings at nickel mines has raised significant environmental concerns.20 Indonesia, the largest nickel producer by far disposes much its mine waste in the ocean thereby...

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