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.