While the energy from sun and wind is nearly infinite, the resources we need to capture this energy are not. Solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and power cables all contain metals. Their varying properties, such as toughness, conductivity or resistance to high temperatures, make them uniquely suitable for renewable energy technologies. But metals have to be extracted from ores that are dug up from the ground. Some metals are rare or becoming depleted. Most mining is dirty business.

The more energy we harvest from the skies above our head, the deeper we will have to dig for the metals below our feet. Because of its decentralised nature, a renewable energy system requires far more metals than a fossil energy system. It takes a whole farm of wind turbines to replace one coal-fired power station. Since the sun and wind are intermittent energy sources, part of their energy needs to be stored for later use. This storage also requires a lot of metals, for batteries and for electrolysers which convert electricity into hydrogen. The strengthening of power grids and the shift to electric mobility further push up the demand for metals.

solar panel

350,000 Eiffel towers

Keeping global warming well
below 2 degrees Celsius
requires 3.5 billion tonnes of
metals and other minerals
for the worldwide deployment
of wind, solar and geothermal
power as well as for energy
storage, according to the
World Bank. (1) This is
350,000 times the weight of
the Eiffel tower.

Exponential growth

The climate crisis leaves us no choice but to make a swift transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, while saving as much energy as we can. Already, solar and wind power have entered the phase of exponential growth, as have electric vehicles and the batteries that power them. According to the European Commission, the European Union will need up to 18 times more lithium and 5 times more cobalt in 2030 than it consumes today in total, for electric car batteries and energy storage alone. By 2050, we would need almost 60 times more lithium and 15 times more cobalt. (1)

The digital transition, a second spearhead of the EU, also relies on metals. Many digital innovations enhance our quality of life. Teleworking and videoconferencing have proven particularly useful during the coronavirus crisis. Sensors, data and algorithms allow us to make a more sustainable use of resources, including energy and materials. But all digital technologies require energy and materials in turn. Despite the ethereal metaphor of ‘the cloud’, the data economy has a heavy material footprint, which includes a wide array of metals. Gains in the energy and material efficiency of devices and networks are outpaced by the exponential growth of data use, which doubles every two to three years. (2) European demand for rare earths used in permanent magnets for digital devices, but also for electric cars and wind turbines, could increase tenfold by 2050. (3) 

Responsible sourcing

The EU is between 75 and 100 per cent dependent on imports for most metals. This creates risks for Europe’s security of supply and for its strategic autonomy. It also raises the issue of climate justice, since the greatest burdens of metal mining are falling on the Global South. Therefore, metals are the Achilles heel of the energy and digital transitions.

Should we rethink our use of joules and bytes to save metals? How do we stop valuable metals ending up as waste? Can we procure those metals that we really need in a way which is equitable for developing countries and future generations? This dossier looks at the metals quandary from various ethical and political angles. Over the coming months, it will be completed with an Agenda for Action that charts a course towards a responsible sourcing of metals for a green and digital Europe. You can contribute to this Agenda by leaving your comments below or by joining one of the Green European Foundation's transnational webinars on metals.

Leave your comments or join a webinar

Footnotes

Further viewing

Sophie Kwizera, 'The energy transition: do it now and do it well' Afspelen op YouTube
Logo Green European Foundation

Green European Foundation (GEF)

This project is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks (NL), Fundacja Strefa Zieloni (PL), Transición Verde (ES), Etopia (BE), Institut Aktivního Občanství (CZ), Green Economics Institute (UK) and Visio (FI), and with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation.

Reacties

03 mei 21

Jean LECOUVET (niet gecontroleerd)

Consigne sur les canettes (Deposit on beverage cans)

Alors que pour recycler l'aluminum on ne consomme que 5 % de l'énergie consommée pour produire le même alu à partir de bauxite, alors que la transition énergétique a besoin de câbles en alu dans les lignes à haute tension et autre, on n'a pas de consigne généralisée des canettes en Europe. Pourquoi pas ?
https://www.emballagesmagazine.com/tous-secteurs/consigne-tomra-plaide-pour-le-pragmatisme.51181

03 mei 21

Richard Wouters

Deposit on beverage cans

@Jean: C'est un point juste. We will take on board your suggestion in section 9, the Agenda for Action (forthcoming).

30 mei 21

Michael J. Ogh… (niet gecontroleerd)

Kudos

Dear Richard and colleagues – well done on this! I've yet to read such a concise, holistic, and relevant analysis of the metals problem. I appreciate the data you incorporate, and I think you're really on point with the suggestions and recommendations. One thing I often stress is that consumers don't typically have many choices when it comes to more sustainable options. Thus, it's critical to ensure that policy and regulatory measures help to create an environment where consumers do have better choices. Having said that, consumer behaviour (while important) is a drop in the bucket compared to industrial and commercial activity. Regardless, I think you all have done a fantastic job, and I look forward to collaborating more with you on this subject.

31 mei 21

Richard Wouters

Consumers, governments, companies

@Michael Thanks. The Agenda for Action (section 9, forthcoming) will make it clear that we address policy makers and companies rather than consumers.

01 juni 21

Floriske (niet gecontroleerd)

Nuclear power

Very interesting and necessary project!
Apart from responsible management of resources, why not also consider nuclear power?
Because of the power density, you’d need much less resources than fossil fuels, let alone renewables.
It’s all about a balanced mix.

01 juni 21

Richard Wouters

Nuclear power

@Floriske: Nuclear power depends on an uninterrupted supply of a finite, imported metal (uranium) and produces dangerous, radioactive waste that thousands of generations after us will have to deal with. As such, nuclear energy doesn't fit in well with the circular and zero-waste Europe that the European Parliament and the European Commission are striving for.
Moreover, nuclear will have a hard time competing with renewables, since the latter's marginal costs are close to zero. (Sun and wind are free 'fuels'.)
Finally, nuclear energy doesn't decrease the metals demand of electric vehicles. These vehicles need a lot of scarce metals for storage of electricity (batteries) and the conversion of electricity into motion (motors). I don't think we will see vehicles powered by onboard nuclear reactors anytime soon. Since private electric cars represent a large chunk of Europe's projected demand for scarce metals, rethinking our mobility - as argued in section 8 - is probably the best way to save metals.

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