Call for a faster transition from energy systems based on fuels to materials

Wind project in Shenyang, China, September 6, 2022. /CFP

Wind project in Shenyang, China, September 6, 2022. /CFP

Editor’s note: Djoomart Otorbaev is the former Prime Minister of the Kyrgyz Republic, a distinguished professor at the Belt and Road School of Beijing Normal University and a member of the Nizami Ganjavi International Center. The article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of CGTN.

To date, 196 Parties (195 countries and the European Union) have adopted the Paris Agreement on climate change, signed on December 12, 2015. Member countries have agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, take action to adapt to climate change and develop and share low-carbon emissions. technologies. Its main goal was to keep the global temperature below 2, preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius this century. According to estimates by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the share of energy from renewable sources is expected to increase from around 10% to 60%, mainly thanks to solar, wind, nuclear and to hydroelectricity, and the share of fossil fuels will rise to almost 80%. percent to about 20 percent.

McKinsey analysts have calculated that to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, the global cost to humanity could reach $275 trillion, with an annual investment of around $9.2 trillion.

Restructuring the global economy toward zero-carbon and low-carbon technologies will require the creation of new principles for clean energy generation, transmission, and distribution. This will require the development and application of renewable energy sources, which is expected to change the global economy. Efficiently producing energy from wind turbines and solar panels, as well as producing hydrogen and batteries for vehicles, will require the widespread adoption of new technologies. Producers of new materials will take the place of suppliers of coal and oil in world trade. The world today will witness a global transition from fuel-intensive energy systems to material-intensive systems. The significant volatility in traditional energy markets currently underway will further accelerate this transition. The modern world is in a large-scale and global transition from fuel-intensive energy systems to material-intensive systems.

Solar panel in Henan, China, September 23, 2022. /CFP

Solar panel in Henan, China, September 23, 2022. /CFP

Solar panel in Henan, China, September 23, 2022. /CFP

According to Argonne National Laboratory, a typical automotive lithium-ion battery (eg, NMC532) can contain approximately 8 kg of lithium, 35 kg of nickel, 20 kg of manganese and 14 kg of cobalt. Wind turbines require large amounts of iron, copper and aluminum, while solar panels use copper, silicon, silver and zinc. An onshore wind farm will require nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired power plant of the same capacity, and an environmentally friendly electric car will require six times more mineral resources than a conventional car. Electrical transmission networks require large amounts of copper and aluminum. Depending on the technology used, electrolysers and fuel cells in hydrogen production should include nickel or platinum group metals. Copper is an essential element for almost all technologies related to electricity.

With the implementation of this revolutionary energy transition, aluminum will become the most widely used metal by weight. Yet, in percentage terms, its annual consumption in this sector will be only a few percent of current production. World Bank experts have estimated that between 2018 and 2050, more than 3 billion tons of various minerals and metals will need to be mined and used in solar, wind, geothermal and energy storage systems. It is assumed that the annual consumption of three of them – graphite, lithium and cobalt – by 2050 will have to increase more than four times compared to the level of 2018.

According to the International Energy Agency, batteries and electric vehicles are expected to account for about half of the demand for new materials, and the need for these materials will increase more than 30 times in twenty years. By weight, the mineral market in 2040 will be dominated by graphite, copper and nickel, but its consumption will not increase much. At the same time, the highest consumption growth rate will be observed for cobalt, graphite and above all lithium, which is expected to increase more than 40 times.

Will the surge in demand for new materials needed for large-scale renewable energy production become a problem? In some cases, it will not be difficult to increase production. For example, the silicon needed for solar cells is abundant on Earth. The technologies for extracting and enriching this material, which has been actively used in microelectronics for decades, are constantly being improved. But producing materials such as neodymium for wind turbines, lithium and cobalt for batteries, and ubiquitous copper will require significant additional financial contributions from investors and technological efforts from geologists and scientists in the world. materials.

In this regard, it is not difficult to predict that the prices of these materials will increase, and a sharp increase in their production will amplify the negative impact on the environment. Additional challenges in relation to fossil fuel supply will be the complexity of supply chains for clean energy technologies, as their supply chains are much more geographically concentrated. But despite these factors, there is no alternative to renewable energy sources. All the materials needed to save the planet must be mined, enriched and used to produce clean energy.

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