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International Energy Agency (IEA)

Mineral constraints for transition overstated by IEA

By Kingsmill Bond - Carbon Trackers, May 10, 2021

The IEA’s latest piece on minerals critical to the energy transition gives a rather pessimistic spin to what was some very positive data. Looked at from a wider perspective, the note provides another useful source of analytical support for the energy transition.

The IEA looked into the amount of minerals needed to fuel the energy transition, and pretty quickly worked out ‘there is no shortage of resources’. The world has plenty of lithium, nickel, rare earth metals and so on. This is what the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been saying for a while, and fits with the work done by the Energy Transitions Commission on mineral availability.

The IEA notes for example that we have 170 times as much lithium reserves as annual demand and that our lithium reserves have increased by 42% over the last eight years as higher prices and the prospect of rising demand have drawn out new investment. Under the IEA’s 1.5 degrees scenario, we will need about twice the amount of critical minerals by 2040 (six times as much for the clean energy industry, but that is only part of global demand), and the IEA put forward a series of sensible suggestions (increase recycling, invest in new supply and so on) to ensure that we get it.

However, their take then turns gloomier as we are warned about how hard this is going to be. Impressive charts show that the average electric vehicle uses 210kg of critical minerals compared to only 35kg for an ICE car and that a MW of solar generation capacity needs 6.5 tonnes of critical minerals compared to a coal plant which needs only 3 tonnes. We are then encouraged to think about all the ESG issues and environmental issues associated with the surge in mineral usage and to worry about supplier concentration, water usage, pollution and depletion.

Stand back a moment however, and you can see immediately that the IEA are very selective in their presentation of the data. They look only at the stocks (the assets you need to build the generator or car) not the flows (the energy you need to run them). But the flows of energy are 2-3 orders of magnitude larger than the stocks, and this means that many of their conclusions are more useful for fossil fuel advocates than for policymakers.

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