The world has enough rare-earth minerals and other critical raw materials to switch from fossil fuels to renewables to produce electricity and stem global warming, according to a new study that counters concerns about the availability of those materials. .
With attempts to increase electricity generation with solar panels, wind turbines, as well as hydroelectric and nuclear plants, some fear that there are not enough essential minerals to make the transition to decarbonization.
Rare earth elements are not in short supply. The United States Geological Survey describes them as “relatively abundant.” They are essential for making the powerful magnets needed by wind turbines; They are also used in cell phones, computer screens, and LED lamps.
This new study analyzes not only those elements, but 17 different raw materials necessary for the generation of electricity, including some ordinary resources such as steel, cement and glass.
A team of scientists studied the materials—many of them rarely mined in the past—and 20 different energy sources. They calculated the availability and pollution from its extraction should clean energy needs increase to meet global goals to reduce greenhouse carbon emissions, meaning that they retain heat, and result from burning fossil fuels.
The study, published Friday in the scientific journal Joule, concludes that more extraction of these substances is necessary, that there are enough of them to go around, and that exploiting them will not significantly aggravate warming.
“Decarbonization is going to be a huge and complicated job, but we can get it done,” says Zeke Hausfather, a co-author of the study and a climate scientist at the technology company Stripe and the Berkeley Earth organization. “I’m not worried that we’re going to run out of these materials.”
Much of the global concern over the raw materials needed for decarbonization is related to batteries and transportation, especially electric vehicles whose batteries rely on lithium. The study does not address that aspect.
Examining the demand for minerals to make batteries is much more complicated than to generate electricity, and that’s what the team will turn to later, Hausfather said. The electricity sector represents between a third and a half of the problem related to the availability of resources, he said.
Much depends on how quickly the world transitions to clean energy.
At the moment, the availability of materials would be insufficient. For example, dysprosium is a mineral used in wind turbine magnets, so a major push to generate cleaner electricity would require three times as much dysprosium as is currently produced, according to the paper. But the reserves of that element exceed by more than 12 times the amount that would be needed to move towards clean energy.
Tellurium is in a similar situation. The element is used in industrial solar farms, and its deposits may contain amounts just slightly higher than those needed for a breakthrough toward green energy. But Hausfather claims that in all these cases substitutes are available.
“The reserves of these materials are sufficient. The analysis is robust and this study refutes those concerns (of mineral depletion),” said Daniel Ibarra, a Brown University professor of the environment, who was not involved in the study and is examining the lithium shortage. However, he says, production capacity for some “essential metals” will need to be increased, and one problem is the rate at which it can be done.
Another concern is whether mining these materials will increase greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. It will, perhaps as much as 10 billion metric tons, which accounts for a quarter of the world’s annual carbon emissions, according to Hausfather.
Renewables require more materials for energy production than fossil fuels because they are more decentralized, he said.
However, according to Hausfeather, the increase in carbon pollution from extraction activities will be more than offset by the large reduction in emissions from fossil fuels.
Rob Jackson of Stanford University, who was not involved in the study, said that despite multiple indications that there are enough rare earth minerals, a balance is needed: “In addition to mining more, we should be using less.”
Seth Borenstein is on Twitter as @borenbears
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