Clean Energy Challenges & the Need for Earth-Abundant Alternatives
With offices closed and commuters working from home, COVID-19 has caused a major dip in the demand for energy. As a result, electricity and oil prices have plummeted along with demand. As the pandemic has drawn on, both traditional utilities and clean energy companies are being forced to adapt.
In the last several weeks, the tide seems to be shifting in favor of renewable energy sources. With lower demand for energy overall, 2020 has seen a disproportionate shift away from coal as an electricity source and increased market share for renewables.
The decline of coal and fossil fuels as sources of electricity for the grid is not just a symptom of the pandemic; it has been happening for years and is unlikely to recover. “Technological innovation and policy support are driving peak fossil fuel demand in sector after sector and country after country, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this. We may now have seen peak fossil fuel demand as a whole,”says Kingsmill Bond, Carbon Tracker energy strategist and report author.
Coal plants are being shut down and decommissioned earlier than planned in efforts to reduce operating costs for utility companies. Again, this is not just a response to pandemic-related challenges; research has shown that by 2025 86% of the U.S. coal fleet will be more expensive to run than local wind and solar generation as replacements. In recent years, renewables have dipped below the cost of installing natural gas on the grid. Even when paired with storage which is still considered too expensive, renewables plus battery storage can out price natural gas for sub-four hour duration – potentially obsolescing natural gas peaker plants that are used to help meet short term demand spikes.
COVID-19 has expedited the impending tumble of the American fossil fuel industry that has been heavily leveraged and subsidized. With low demand and no leverage, the US is unable to keep its fossil fuel companies solvent and compete with other countries. In order to achieve energy independence or energy dominance, the US must lean into renewables.
Early in the pandemic, much of the clean energy sector faced the grim outlook of a market that wouldn’t bear any higher-cost renewables. The continued financial hardship brought on by COVID-19 still poses a significant challenge for clean energy; over 620,000 clean energy workers have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic. Even so, renewable energy sources are expected to add nearly 50 times more net new capacity than natural gas, coal, oil, and nuclear power combined in the next 3 years.
We must look at the full picture of sustainability as we transition the grid toward renewable energy sources. This economic shift is a major opportunity to make the true sustainability of renewables a priority. There are several underlying issues we must address when planning for the future of renewables: materials, supply chains, and lifecycles. What materials are being used to create these energy sources? Are their supply chains sustainable and ethical? What is the lifecycle of the renewable energy source and what happens to it when it is retired?
Many renewable energy sources already have answers to some of these questions, but not solutions to the challenges they pose. For example, wind turbines contain rare earth elements in their generators. The supply chain of these elements is not particularly sustainable. In addition, wind turbine blades are not recyclable, leaving thousands of tons of waste to be buried when a turbine is retired and requiring virgin materials for each new build.
Solar panels also come with unique challenges; most panels contain critical materials, they are difficult to separate for recycling, and the US hasn’t implemented wide-scale recycling programs for their components. Washington is leading the way for solar panel recycling thanks to the vision of Rep. Norma Smith and Rep. Jeff Morris. In 2016, the House passed trailblazing legislation co-sponsored by these state representatives requiring manufacturers to collect their panels at the end of their useful life for recycling.This is an excellent step forward for Washington, but more needs to be done to manage the mass of panels headed for the waste stream nationwide.
Currently, only 30-40% of the US’s energy demand can be met through renewables like solar and wind due to their dependency on the weather. The future of renewable energy sources for the grid is highly dependent on improved energy storage solutions. Lithium-ion batteries have typically been the go-to application for energy storage, but alternative solutions are crucial due to the challenging supply chains of lithium battery materials.
“Increasing the availability of critical materials and discovering earth-abundant alternatives for them is essential to America’s energy security and will also open new avenues for commercial applications,” said Dr. Chris Fall, Director of DOE’s Office of Science. “While we’ve seen real progress in this field, both basic and applied research is needed to secure the availability of the resources that are critical for today’s technologies.” Federally, the Department of Energy has also allocated significant resources to research into critical material alternatives and clean energy initiatives. JCDREAM supports Washington’s clean energy future through funding and facilitating research projects into earth-abundant materials that address the need for continued improvement and innovation. Advancements in battery technology, catalysis, and education programshave been made through JCDREAM’s seed grant program that will shed light on the path forward.
The shift to powering our grid with more renewables is already in progress. To ensure its success, we must address issues throughout the lifecycle with energy storage, technology recyclability, and material sustainability. While the pandemic may be a near-term obstacle for the clean energy industry, the transition to renewable and sustainable energy sources has already become unstoppable.
Bringing it Home: The Implications of Onshoring Rare Earth Mining
In our last post, we talked about China’s rare earth dominance and the US’ efforts to onshore rare earth mining. Onshoring eliminates some of the supply risk that comes with sourcing materials from other countries, but it comes with its own set of significant challenges. Even with the expected improvements to health and environmental oversight in the US, the downsides of mining these elements domestically are heavy. At least two proposed laws this year aim to grow American rare earth mining, but we must be diligent to execute domestic mining very carefully and seek out ways to reduce the need for newly mined materials.
US history has been largely impacted by mining, with increased access to our natural resources playing a major role in our economic growth and industrial dominance. The Gold Rush of 1848-1855 drastically increased the population in the Western US and kickstarted the nation’s participation in the industry. However, for over 100 years after the Gold Rush, mining operations in the US were not well regulated. As a result, the US experienced several disasters both during the mining boom and decades later.
One such disaster happened just 5 years ago. The Gold King Mine had been abandoned for 95 years when a 3-million-gallon spillreleased contaminated water into rivers that reached over 5 states. The contaminated water built up in mining tunnels after wastewater pumps were shut off when mining ceased. While it seems like a one-off accident, the numbers are daunting.
Data shows that hardrock mining isthe largest toxic polluterin the US. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that there are up to 500,000 abandoned mines in the country, which would cost taxpayers as much as $54 billion to reclaim and remediate. Rare earth mining and processing are typically even more harsh on the environment than other hardrock mining practices. Many rare earth deposits contain thorium and radium that require special processing to keep radioactive waste out of the groundwater. Rare earth ore produces lower yield than other ores, meaning there is much more waste – up to 2,000 tons of toxic waste per ton of output.
From the 1960s to mid 1980s California’s Mountain Pass Mine single-handedly made the US the dominant supplier of rare earths. In the 1980s China made its entrance into commercial scale rare earth mining, and their efforts to drive down the price of rare earths made it difficult to compete. China’s focus waslow costs while the US government was making a push for worker safety and environmental protection. The Mine Safety and Health Act (MSHA) of 1977 was a catalyst for much-needed improvements to mining operations and a sharp decline in fatalities, but many mines could not stay financially solvent with increased regulation brought by the act.
Even with the MSHA in effect, it has been a constant struggle to appropriately govern the American hardrock mining industry. Before 2001, hardrock mining companies were not being held accountable for the effects of their operations. They did not have to make assurances that they would cleanup defunct sites or even pay into a reclamation fund. This has left the US EPA billions of dollars short of being able to reverse the damage from our storied mining history.
Part of why the US is no longer dominant in rare earth production is the struggles and eventual closure of the Mountain Pass Mine. With China gaining market share and setting aggressively low prices in the early 1980s, Mountain Pass began piping wastewater 14 miles away to increase processing capacity. This resulted in 60 spills of hazardous and radioactive waste into the surrounding desert and protected national land. The mine’s owner, Molycorp, could not face the cleanup costs mounted by the EPA and ultimately shut down all processing and mining operations within 3 years. They reopened briefly from 2012-2015 before declaring bankruptcy and being bought out by a consortium with Chinese ties.
The US’ only rare earth mine was less than perfect in its last decade of operation. China’s rock-bottom prices made it nearly impossible to operate within US environmental standards and compete on price. We have the technology, we have the resources, and we have the rare earth deposits, but we have not been able or willing to shoulder the environmental costs of rare earth mining. If the market starts paying the real cost of rare earths instead of China’s artificially low cost, domestic rare earth mining could still work.
A new rare earth mining effort is proposed in West Texas’ Round Top Mountain with a processing facility in Colorado. This rare earth deposit is an exciting resource opening the possibility of rare earth independence and mining with better regulations from its inception. The fact is that we can’t afford an environmental disaster at this location; the mountain is less than 10 miles from Texas’ thoroughfare I-10, and less than 20 miles from the Rio Grande. The Rio Grande watershed provides drinking and irrigation water for more than 6 million people and is already drying up. We should be asking the constituents of Texas if this is a risk they want to invite into their backyard. If the answer is yes, we are obligated to do everything we can to prevent the problems we have seen in China, Colorado, California, and many other mining towns.
Lax regulations in China’s rare earth mining industry have resulted in irreversible human health costs and environmental damage. But it’s clear that the US has mining problems of its own. While regulation would indeed be better here, the environmental impact of rare earth mining is extremely difficult to offset regardless of where it takes place. This fact needs to be considered as we plan for new rare earth mining operations stateside. We need to make concerted efforts to lower the demand for newly mined rare earth minerals. A focus on recycling programs and research into alternative materials and performance improvements is crucial for the country’s environmental health and longevity.
Mined in China: Reducing Dependence on Chinese Rare Earths
China has been a hot topic since the start of the pandemic.The world has looked to China for answers in the battle against the virus and its origin, while still depending on them for major resources to keep businesses running. In the first of ourCOVID-19 blog series, we discussed how shutdowns across China have forced many companies in the US to realize the depth of their dependence on Chinese imports.
Global interdependence is not a new concept. There are several industries in which global powers are at the mercy of China’s supply chains. China’s supply of rare earth elements is particularly troubling since these elements are used in many industries that make up the backbone of the US economy. From 2014-2017, China supplied 80% of the US’s rare earth consumption. These elements made their way into aircraft engines, medical devices, TV and computer screens, and high strength magnets for cell phone speakers, wind turbines and electric vehicles.
China has been the primary global supplier of rare earth elements for decades. They are responsible for 70% of global output despite only controlling 1/3 of the world’s rare earth elementreserves. China’s government has poured significant resources into developing rare earth mining and processing infrastructure, andtheir lax regulations in the REE industry have created serious problems. In 2012 even China’s State Council reported that rare earths operations in the country cause “increasingly significant” environmental problems year after year. 50 years of mining and processing has “severely damaged surface vegetation, caused soil erosion, pollution, and acidification, and reduced or even eliminated food crop output.” The council also stated that most Chinese rare earth plants produce wastewater with a “high concentration” of radioactive and toxic residue.
Rare earth mining and processing are uniquely challenging. While not exactly rare, these elements only exist in high enough concentrations to be pit-mined in certain locations – like the Bayan Obo region of China or the Mountain Pass mine in California. The fact that REEs are so chemically similar to each other, means that they usually coexist in a single geological ore formation. That similarity between elements also makes them very difficult to separate from each other. This attribute of REEs called companionality makes it nearly impossible to isolate a single metal for mining and results in large amounts of waste as the refined rare earth oxide is extracted from ore. Mining and separating rare earths and companion elements require massive amounts of chemical solvents, acids, bases, energy and fresh water. The process is very wasteful and harmful to the environment if it is not managed properly.
While mining is the known and accepted method for acquiring these metals, it is important to consider other options – replacement and recycling. Rare earth elements are notoriously difficult to substitute because of the unique properties and performance-enhancing capabilities derived from their electron structure.Despite these challenges, Hitachi and Nanosys were each able to develop products that successfully replaced rare earths in their application. Appledesigned a robotto recover rare earth metals from devices that typical recyclers did not have the capability to separate.It is this type of research and deployment into earth-abundant alternatives and recycling that will contribute to the successful shift away from China’s rare earth supply.
China has succeeded in rare earths by continually driving down costs, and by willingly taking on the environmental damage and human health risks associated with such low costs. Paired with the high costs and regulatory difficulty of establishing new mines in other places with REE deposits, China maintains dominance while other countries struggle to even get a foothold in the market.
This time last year, China’s President Xi Jinping alluded to a cutoff of rare earths sent to the US and prioritization of China’s domestic consumption of rare earths. These comments raised concerns in the US and spurred efforts to secure a domestic supply of rare earths. Last week, Ted Cruz (R-TX) proposed a bill to fund and revive the US’s domestic rare earths industry with tax breaks for mine developers and the companies who purchase their products. While this moves us away fromdependence on China, returning rare earth miningto the US will require diligent planning and management to avoid the environmental and human fallout seen in China.
Onshoring rare earth production back to the US has several implications when compared to the current situation. The US generally has higher standards for workforce safety when compared to much of the world, meaning domestic rare earth production should come with a much lower human health cost. But the market needs to be prepared for a higher price tag. US-mined rare earths will likely be much more expensive due to the startup costs of new mines, tighter safety regulations, more expensive labor and higher standards for environmental consciousness in mining and processing.Cruz’s proposed bill would place the burden of the higher prices on taxpayers.
The bill incentivizes mines and manufacturers with large tax cuts in order to jump-start the rare earth industry domestically. It eliminates the sticker shock for manufacturers with a tax break of up to 200% of the price tag of US rare earths, but that break is just another subsidy that comes out of American public’s pockets. The new price tag will reflect something much closer to the full cost of using REEs. No more outsourcingwaste, human health problems and environmental damage to another country just because they’re willing to take it on.
By mining for rare earths in the US, we will reduce the global environmental and human rights impact of our consumption. Bringing rare earth production back to the US will also diminish some dependence on China’s rare earth supplybut it does not fully address the bigger issue: we need to reduce our consumption of rare earth materials. In order to lessen the environmental risks that are unique to rare earth mining, demand for rare earths must decrease. Through the exploration of alternative earth-abundant materials, technology that makes more efficient use of rare earths,and recycling programs, we can decrease the amount of mining required to fill domestic demand and reduce those impacts even further.
Several states are beginning to lift their stay-at-home orders in hopes of reviving the economy and getting people back to work, but data shows that this may come at a heavy cost to disadvantaged populations. The CDC and WHO have issued guidance in efforts to control the virus: social distancing, hand washing, and respiratory etiquette. But how does one maintain their distance while living in a homeless shelter or wash their hands frequently while living in a car with no running water? What about the essential worker who delivers the nation’s food supply with limited access to protective equipment? How do we mitigate the risks to these populations?
Many essential workers are low-income employees who often cannot pay for unexpected medical costs – even to be tested for COVID. Everyone has heard the media emphasize the importance of testing, but low-income patients account for less than 0.32% of confirmed cases worldwide. This extremely low number indicates that most of the low-income population does not have access to testing.
Also lopsided is the proportion of low-income workers who can work from home. The luxury of sitting in the safety of our own homes while earning a full paycheck is reserved for earners in the top quartile with more than 60% able to work from home, while less than 10% of low-income workers in the US can perform their jobs remotely.
Another disproportionate effect is seen in the hospitalization rate of confirmed COVID-19 patients. In a study conducted by the CDC, 33.1% of hospitalized patients were African American while only 12.7% of the US population and 18% of the study’s population is African American. Clearly the hospitalization rate of African Americans for COVID-19 is much higher than other ethnic groups.
While the imminent threat of deadly disease raises the stakes, these social equity challenges existed before COVID-19, and they stretch far beyond the US. There are entire industries in the developing world where people are risking their safety and health for much less than the public’s access to food and healthcare. Our first-world patterns of consumption drive many in the developing world to work in dangerous conditions while leaving a trail of environmental disasters with devastating long-term health effects.
Entire communities are dedicated to sourcing the materials in our cell phones, computers, electric cars, and solar panels. The largest is Baotou in Inner Mongolia. The city of 2.5 million people is almost entirelydedicated to mining and processing rare earth materials.Processing creates wastetailings that are pumped into massive holding ponds without a proper liner, allowing the toxinsto leach into the groundwater.Drinking water in the city is already suspected to be impure, and the tailings are polluting the Yellow Riverwhich is a major water source for northern China.
Child miners in the Congo spend long days digging for the cobalt that goes into the lithium batteries that power most of the first world’s must-have tech gadgets. Despite lawsuits, exposés, and direct contact with major suppliersthe cobalt industry continues to employ child labor and unsafe working conditions, and major companies continue to deny any knowledge or patronage of these parts of the supply chain. These cases are not unique.Several critical materials are sourced through supply chains fraught with human rights and health issues, and they will continue to be if consumption patterns and accountability don’t change.
COVID-19 has opened our eyes to how disadvantaged populations still cannot access the necessities that would enable them to stay home and stay healthy. Our front-line and essential workers are sacrificing their safety in order to uphold the quality of life for others in this trying time. We need to consider this as we make decisions, whether it’s leaving the house or purchasing electronics. Underprivileged lives should not be endangered for our creature comforts.
COVID-19 Forces a Novel Definition of National Security
With the US still working out how to respond to COVID-19, national security must be strongly considered in recovery plans. Though not a direct attack from another world power, the challenges of the pandemic are a significant threat. The mounting death toll, as well as supply chain, staffing and capacity struggles in the healthcare system highlight new considerations to be made as we define and pursue national security. John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA, warns “COVID-19 threatens to act — or is already acting — like a sort of international circuit breaker, impeding the secure flow of things we depend on in our daily lives, from medicine and food to cars and smartphones.”
As discussed in our last post, the US has major dependencies on imports for crucial supply chains. Just as the security of our medical system is overly reliant on the Chinese supply of PPE and medications, our technology and military sector is overly reliant on critical materials from China and other even more challenging regimes. US reliance on imported critical materials, altered military operations due to COVID-19, a volatile energy security outlook, and numerous other factors warrant concern around general military preparedness.
While much of the world is focused on helping one another and the global community during the pandemic, times of uncertainty create opportunities around the world for authoritarian regimes, dictatorships, and other governments to consolidate their power. This power imbalance creates an uneasy climate of suppressed speech and protest, sometimes leading to military action and even martial law. It is crucial that we maintain our national security and response capabilities during these times.
Defense News states “For years, supply chain experts warned about the potential for China to cut off access to the critical materials found in almost every major weapon system, from fifth-generation fighters to precision-guided munitions. Even a modest decrease in the availability of rare earth materials results in increasing prices for the elements, but severe and sustained shortages could threaten the ability of American defense contractors to produce systems vital to our national security.”
Even if the US doesn’t depend directly on China’s supply of critical materials for defense applications, we are susceptible to price fluctuations and supply disruptions. These challenges are inevitable when resources are geographically or politically concentrated and plagued with environmental or human rights issues. These are all further reasons for continuing to pursue domestic supply and earth-abundant alternatives for critical materials.
While the extent of our dependency on imported critical materials may seem daunting, we are on the right track as the US government has already begun work to secure our supply chains. A key to success in ensuring our national security and military capability will be maintaining a focus on diversification of supply and research in earth-abundant alternatives as we move forward during and after the pandemic.
China has spent decades building the supply chains for rare earths and other critical materials into a weapon aimed directly at U.S. supply chains…The Chinese strategy is based on a harsh calculus: Depriving only defense contractors of rare earth supplies will drive costs and production lead times up for the U.S. military and cause concern within the U.S. government, but it will not lead to widespread public discontent. Jeffery A Green
Rare earth minerals have played a key role in the transformation and explosive growth of China’s world-beating economy over the last few decades. It’s clear from visiting Baotou that it’s had a huge, transformative impact on the city too. As the centre of this 21st Century gold-rush, Baotou feels very much like a frontier town. Tim Maughan
A Lesson in Supply Chain Vulnerability from COVID-19
The world is experiencing supply chain disruptions at a massive scale as COVID-19 lockdowns force many companies to halt operations. The impact is unprecedented in grocery stores, hospitals, and manufacturing businesses across the US and the world.
Products that are typically very abundant sell out before they reach shelves, forcing stores to place limits on essentials. Healthcare providers risk their own wellbeing by altering their behavior to adapt to the shortage of personal protective equipment. Manufacturers are unable to procure parts and raw materials that are crucial to their products.
The supply chain issues of the COVID-19 pandemic give a bleak look into what our clean energy future could look like. Without preparation, research and supply chain diversification into earth-abundant materials, we could face similar shortages that threaten the ability to produce energy technologies in wind, solar, transportation electrification and beyond.
Critical materials are those that are highly necessary, subject to supply risks, and difficult to substitute. The primary example in COVID times is personal protective equipment (PPE) and the PPE supply chain is in crisis. We are all familiar with the shortage of PPE products, but even more telling is the lack of raw material including transparent plastic sheet for face shields, filter material for masks, and even elastic straps. Demand has skyrocketed with large private consumer purchases, increased medical field demand, and stockpiling. PPE supply was vulnerable because such a large portion comes from China, where many firms have locked down.
In a similar fashion, the supply of critical materials for our clean energy future is vulnerable. Supply chains already exhibit strain even though deployment of wind, solar, and electrified transportation is only a small fraction of the fossil fuel-based market. Just as the COVID crisis has dramatically increased our demand for medical PPE, we know that we must also exponentially increase the use of clean technology to avoid a climate crisis.
If we don’t develop earth-abundant alternative materials and supply chains that meet the performance requirements for clean energy technology, our trajectory will stall. If we wait until an energy crisis happens, it will be too late to develop effective alternatives. By working on critical material substitutes before another crisis hits, we can secure our future with abundant and inexpensive clean energy.
Companies may be able to plug holes in supply chains disrupted by the new coronavirus infections paralyzing Chinese production, but there are some commodities virtually only China can supply: rare earths. Marcy Kreiter