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The clean energy economy turns out to be the metals energy economy

October 1, 2023

A very observant longtime friend of mine opined recently that the clean energy economy is really just a metals energy economy where metals provide the basis for energy production and transmission. The idea that this emerging economy is going to be light on resources compared to our current fossil-fuel based economy is a fantasy.

And you don’t have to take his word for it. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has attempted to project the needs of this new economy. The IEA’s report entitled “The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions” contains some eye-popping statistics that drive home just how much in the way of metals might be needed in order to supply the builders of this clean energy infrastructure.

Using two scenarios the IEA estimated that growth in demand coming from clean energy industries just for battery-related minerals will explode by 2040 relative to 2020:

1. Lithium: Between 13 to 42 times.

2. Graphite: Between 8 and 25 times.

3. Cobalt: Between 6 to 21 times.

4. Nickel: Between 6 to 19 times.

5. Manganese: Between 3 to 8 times.

Demand related specifically to renewable energy and its infrastructure is projected to increase for the following minerals under two scenarios:

1. Rare earth elements (REEs): Between 3.4 and 7.3 times more. REEs are important for electric motors and generators.

2. Molybdenum: Between 2.2 to 2.9 times more. Molybdenum is used in solar and wind power because of its ability to transmit electricity well.

3. Copper – Between 1.7 to 2.7 times more. Copper, of course, has long been used in electrical motors and wires.

4. Silicon – Between 1.8 to 2.3. Silicon, of course, is a semiconductor widely used in solar panels. Silicon is the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust after oxygen, so it is widely available. However, it takes considerable energy and a multi-step process to produce silicon of sufficient purity for semiconductor and other applications.

These lists are, of course, not complete. Here are two more examples. Presumably, aluminum use will grow in order to lighten new vehicles thus reducing their energy use. And, startup companies are trying to encourage adoption of iron powder as fuel that can be recycled and burned again.

What is not often discussed is the vast number of new mines which will have to be discovered, developed and operated in the coming years. It is not certain enough deposits of sufficient concentration to justify mine development will be found to supply these huge new sources of demand.

And when economically viable deposits are found, their development and operation will consume a large amount of liquid fuels. Currently, almost all of those fuels are derived from oil and to a much smaller extent natural gas. This mine build-out will result in significant ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases. And the refining of these metals will require copious amount of energy to achieve the high temperatures required. The advocates of this build-out say that eventually new nonpolluting fuels will be substituted for petroleum- and natural gas-based fuels. The key word here is “eventually.”

A World Bank report provides the following nifty chart which maps metals to their use in the emerging clean energy economy. It makes clear why the clean energy economy is really a metals energy economy that isn’t going to be as clean as many think.

Chart from the World Bank which maps metals to their use in the emerging clean energy economy.
Chart from the World Bank which maps metals to their use in the emerging clean energy economy.


Main photo:  Chemetall Foote Lithium Operation (2010) by PDTillman. Via Wikimedia Commons:

“The Chemetall Foote Lithium Operation in Clayton Valley, a dry lake bed in Esmeralda County, Nevada, just east of Silver Peak, a tiny town that has been host to various kinds of mining for about 150 years.”

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: Renewable Energy, renewable energy critiques