Global energy transition powers surge in demand for metals

Low-carbon economy driving transformation of industry worldwide

Steep worldwide increases in the use of low-carbon power technology is expected to put unprecedented pressure on the mining industry to meet demand for copper and other metals | Photo: DR Travel Photo and Video/Shutterstock

By 2030, the amount of installed wind power globally will more than double, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Installed solar power will quadruple.

And the number of electric vehicles will increase 1,389% – to 125 million from three million – by 2030, and 3,333% in 2040 to 300 million, according to the IEA.

Given that each electric vehicle requires 83 kilograms of copper and each wind turbine contains about 3.5 tonnes of the metal, that represents a surging demand for copper – as well as other base metals – on a timeline that is shorter than what it typically takes to bring a new mine into production.

Copper is just one of the base metals needed for things like wind turbines and electric cars, and it’s one of the metals for which there is no good substitute. Substantial amounts of iron and metallurgical coal are also needed to make the steel that goes into wind turbines and cars.

If, as the IEA predicts, there are 125 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road by 2030, it will require roughly 10 million tonnes of copper – a 50% increase over current annual global copper consumption (20 million tonnes).

The additional wind turbines built by 2030 would require roughly two million tonnes of copper – about 10% of the world’s current production.

That’s not even taking into account how much copper would be needed for a quadrupling of solar power, and all the enhancements to the electrical grid and charging infrastructure for electric vehicles that will be required.

Given how much aluminum, metallurgical coal, copper, aluminum, zinc and rare earths are required for each wind turbine and each EV – and how much lithium and cobalt are needed for EV batteries – it begs the question: Will the transition to a low-carbon economy lead to “peak metals” (the point of maximum metal production)?

The targets that governments are setting for themselves for electric vehicle and renewable energy adoption will require a massive increase in mining, and there’s some question as to whether the new mines required can even be built in time to meet the demand according to the timelines being set.

A recent joint study by Metabolic, Copper 8 and Leiden University for the Dutch government estimates that global production of some metals will need to increase 12-fold by 2050 if all signatories of the Paris Agreement live up to their commitments to decarbonizing their economies.

“The good news is that, for most metals, enough identified metal reserves are available for the energy transition,” the report concludes.

“However, the lead time for operating new mines is in the range of 10 to 20 years. Therefore, the ever more pressing question is whether we can make these metals available in the time that we have left to implement the energy transition: about three decades.”

Some government bodies responsible for energy security have already begun to ring alarm bells and are asking whether a shortage of certain critical metals will allow the energy transition to happen on the scale and timelines that many governments have set for themselves.

One study raises concerns about the supply of silver, which is used in photovoltaic cells for solar power. Another raises concerns about lithium and cobalt, both of which are needed for lithium-ion batteries used in EVs.

More generally, a European Parliament report warns that “the supply of raw materials used in advanced and emerging technologies may not be able to keep up with the rapidly increasing demand.”

Some critical “energy metals” such as lithium and cobalt – both used in car batteries – are currently in adequate supply.

But more than half of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where ethical concerns about child labour and impacts of artisanal mining on human health have earned cobalt the label “the blood diamond of batteries.”

Geologists generally agree that the earth’s crust theoretically contains enough base metals, such as iron and copper, to fuel the energy transition.

Moreover, metals like steel and copper can be – and are – recycled. So a 1,400% increase in EVs doesn’t necessarily mean an equivalent increase in copper demand, since some of that increased demand could be met from recycling.

But there’s no question that the world is going to need a lot more copper, steel, rare earths and several other critical energy metals over the next two decades. The increased mining required will have impacts on land, water, forests and Indigenous peoples.

“A major increase in virgin raw material extraction will have severe consequences for local communities and the environment, including large emissions of greenhouse gases,” the European Parliament report warns.

Even if there are sufficient theoretical amounts of base metals in the earth’s crust, there’s a big difference between what is theoretically retrievable and what is economically recoverable or politically viable.

Building a new copper mine is both expensive and politically risky. In B.C. alone, two new copper mine projects have failed the social-licence tests just in recent years.

And even when a deposit proves to be economically recoverable and can get all the permits it needs, it typically takes 10 to 20 years for a mine to go from discovery to production.

“Not all theoretical reserves are technically (or economically) extractable, and with ore grades declining, mining requires an increasing volume of water and energy,” the Dutch government study notes.

The report identifies five critical “energy metals” that may be in critically short supply – all of them rare-earth metals.

“The current global supply of several critical metals is insufficient to transition to a renewable energy system,” the report says. “Exponential growth in renewable energy production capacity is not possible with the present-day technologies and annual metal production.”

To meet its own renewable energy objectives for 2030, the Netherlands alone would need 2.4 million to 3.2 million tonnes of energy metals, and 8.6 million to 11.7 million tonnes by 2050.

The Dutch government’s target of 1.2 million EVs on the road by 2030 would require 146 tonnes per year of neodymium (used in magnets) alone. That is 4% of the world’s annual production of neodymium. It would also require a 25-fold increase in lithium and cobalt.

“If the rest of the world would develop renewable electricity capacity at a comparable pace with the Netherlands, a considerable shortage would arise,” the report warns.

“Scarcity will eventually lead to competition between different technologies; and therefore, between companies and countries. This is a serious risk for the transition towards a clean and sustainable energy supply, both within Europe and the rest of the world.”

The study points out that Europe is entirely dependent on other countries for the raw materials needed for its energy transition and suggests that European leaders consider developing a European mining industry.

One energy metal that no one seems to be paying attention to is uranium, said Marin Katusa of Katusa Research.

“I think uranium’s the one that nobody’s really talking about that is a serious issue,” he said.

While the deployment of new nuclear power has stalled in the western world, it is still being developed as a firm, low-carbon energy source in some countries.

But Katusa said the stockpiles of fissionable material are declining, Russia controls about half of the world’s enrichment and no new mines are going into production. He thinks that American power companies, which import 95% of their uranium, could find themselves running short of the uranium needed for existing plants.

Hadi Dowlatabadi, a professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, doesn’t think peak metals will be a thing.

For one thing, he doesn’t buy some of the projections for the electrification of transportation. He also thinks substitutions will be found for certain metals that become constrained by physical supply or price.

“For example, we will not be using lithium in stationary electricity storage,” he said. “It is far too expensive, and the chemistry does not allow long-term recharge-discharge.

“We will also not be relying on EVs for transportation when carbon-neutral hydrocarbon fuels are less expensive and widely available using the same infrastructure as [that] used for fossil energy.”

While substitution may address a shortage of one particular metal or mineral – vanadium replacing lithium for large-scale battery storage, for example – it doesn’t avoid the fact that it will have to be mined.

Someone, somewhere, will still need to dig something out of the ground – if not lithium, then vanadium, and if not cobalt, manganese – and someone, somewhere, is going to oppose it.

The opportunities and challenges posed for the exploration and mining sectors were among the topics at this week’s Association for Mineral Exploration (AME) annual roundup conference.

Rob Stevens, AME’s vice-president of regulatory and technical policy, said governments everywhere need to consider whether their regulatory regimes for approving mines might end up curbing the supply of the materials needed for the transition to a low-carbon economy.

“In B.C., as an example, that CleanBC plan will be compromised if we can’t actually provide the products to realize it,” Stevens said.

“I think there could be more push – not to restrict environmental controls. I think we just need to be more efficient in this. We can still have all that protection – it just shouldn’t take so long.”