It’s been a while since my last blog post, but I’m hoping to get back on the wagon a bit more in 2020. Outlined below is an expanded and annotated post that was recently published in the Gazette at Memorial University. It was written mostly to illustrate the importance of metals to our current (and future) lifestyles, particularly in rural Newfoundland and Labrador and other rural locales in Canada. Moreover, to also illustrate that the coming green economy will require abundant metals, and for some metals demand will be much greater than at present. It ends by raising the issue of local vs. imported metals in maintaining our current lifestyles.
Metals Will Be Critical for the Green Economy
The recent climate marches mobilized millions of people globally to raise awareness of climate change and was a signal to governments that current policies on greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation, and global warming, are not sufficiently addressing the challenge of climate change. The issue has rallied people across generations and placed this issue at the forefront internationally. Many governments and the general public recognize that new, or revised, policies must be implemented that will spur a transition from the petroleum economy to a renewable “green” economy. This is even recognized by many international petroleum companies who are transitioning from solely petroleum products and rebranding to become energy companies with many having divisions focused on renewable energy resources.
With the transition to a new economy there will be a greater reliance on existing, evolving, and new technologies that will allow us to maintain our standard of living but doing so with a smaller carbon footprint. This shift, however, will not result in a decrease on our reliance on metal resources. In fact, many of the products required for the green transition will put greater demands on both traditional metals and high technology metals. For example, the electric and hybrid vehicles that will be critical for transforming the transportation sector require 2-4 times more copper than conventional combustion engines (e.g., 20kg copper/combustion vehicle vs. 40kg copper/hybrid vehicle and 80kg copper/electric vehicle). There will be further copper demand from the charging infrastructure needed to support the national and international fleet of hybrid/electric vehicles.
The green transition will also see a shift from coal-, natural gas-, and diesel-based electricity generation towards renewable energy sources, such as solar panels and photovoltaics, windmills/windfarms, hydroelectricity, and potentially nuclear energy. All of these sources require both traditional metals such as nickel, chrome, iron, copper, tin, silicon, and uranium, and “high tech” metals, such as rare earth elements (REE)(e.g., neodymium, dysprosium, scandium), cobalt, and lithium. Solar panels and photovoltaics alone require up to 40 times more copper than existing electricity delivery systems!
The green economy will also be driven, in part, by a robust computing and communications infrastructure that will will put an additional strain on metal resources. The sensors, wiring, light bulbs, heat pumps, and other infrastructure needed for “smart homes” and “smart cities”, and the computers and networks needed to drive the “smart” economy using various artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms, will all require metals. The ubiquitous smart phones, tablets, and laptops that mobilized millions for the climate strikes and were subsequently utilized for the many tweets, selfies, blog posts, and emails to political leaders, will require abundant metals. An average smart phone alone has over 30 elements within it including copper, gold, silver, zinc, REE, indium, and lead. Most of these elements do not come from recycled cans, bicycles, and computer parts, but from a hole in the ground somewhere on the planet (and most of which are discovered by geoscientists)!
The requirement for enhanced natural and high-tech elements will require us to increase production or find new resources. The World Bank estimates that wind turbines, solar panels, and energy storage alone will require at least 300%, 200%, and 1000% more metals, respectively, than we are currently using. While recycling can cover some of the supply for some elements (e.g., copper, iron), many of the high-tech elements have very restricted supply chains, limited political availability, and a limited number of sources and sellers worldwide. For example, the REE supply of the planet is dominated by one source: the Bayan Obo deposit in the Inner Mongolia region of China. This deposit is a source of ~50% of REE for the global marketplace and China controls ~96% of global REE supply. Similarly, cobalt is a critical element for hybrid and electric vehicles and the vast majority of world supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (~60%) with the other top producers being Russia and Cuba. Given ongoing and impending trade and international political disputes between Canada and supplier nations, and the political instability in many the countries that produce these critical metals, Canada and other western nations are in a very precarious position with a high probability of supply disruptions and reserve insecurity for elements critical for the green energy transition. This uncertainty of supply could be a major impediment and could potentially decelerate changes to green energy infrastructure and the technological developments needed for a new economy.
It is clear that the transition to a new green economic, social, and political paradigm will require both abundant and secure and stable supplies of metal resources to maintain our current standard of living. We are blessed with a bounty of metal resources in our province and in our nation. In Newfoundland and Labrador, we have world-class mineral resources like the nickel-copper-cobalt deposits at Voisey’s Bay and the iron ore deposits in western Labrador, as well as production of gold, copper, limestone, gypsum on the island, as well as emerging potential sources of REE in Labrador (e.g., Strange Lake and Port Hope Simpson). Mining in the province contribute millions each year in royalties (~$90 million in 2016) and provides direct employment and resultant income tax from ~4800 employees. Further, deposits in the province provide billions in annual mineral shipments (between $2.2 and $4.4 billion annually since 2009) and support countless spin-off industries that directly contribute to our provincial economy, particularly so in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. In an emerging green economy, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians (and all Canadians) must decide whether we wish to obtain our resources domestically or be reliant on imports from much less reliable foreign sources. We have regulatory regimes at various levels of government that provide environmental oversight and monitoring, royalty and taxation regimes that ensure that generated wealth contributes to the social programs that we all value, and a talented workforce that are contributors to the minerals industry in Canada and internationally. This situation contrasts greatly with many foreign jurisdictions that will source the needed metal for the green economy should we decide not to mine the assets in our own back yards. Just as I prefer my food from local sources whenever possible (lettuce and carrots from local farmers are far superior to those far travelled and which have a much larger carbon footprint!), I also advocate for local metals. I believe we as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have an opportunity to be provide a metal contribution to the coming green economy and do so in a technically, environmentally, socially, and fiscally responsible manner.
Stephen J. Piercey, PhD, PGeo, FGC
Professor, Department of Earth Sciences, Memorial University of Newfoundland