Report: clean tech growth unlikely to lead to metals scarcity

Lithium and cobolt, indium and tellurium are used in battery and some PV production respectively, and there have been fears expressed that bottlenecks in their sourcing could slow the growth of these crucial clean technologies. New research is showing that supply challenges have been overcome and “in most cases” production will be able to meet demand, “in the short to medium term.”

In a word of caution, the report authors warm that, “there remains significant uncertainty over what impact the availability of critical metals will have on the cost of some low-carbon energy technologies.”

Two reports from UKERC and ERP have made the finding, noting that if demand for tellurium increases 360% by 2030, there could be “pressure on supply chains.”

Clean technology firms are blind to the potential problem of materials shortages and there is evidence of a number of companies taking action. First Solar has acquired primary material assets, and the location of the Tesla/Panasonic battery GW-scale factory, in Reno, Nevada, is thought to be attractive partly because of its proximity to a tellurium mine.

“Rising demand and the complexities of bringing on new metal production has led to increasing concerns about the future availability of metals critical to decarbonization,” says Jamie Speirs from Imperial College London, who led the research for UKERC. “The supply of critical metals has increased over the last few years from a number of countries. However, future availability remains uncertain.”

The reports have found that material substitution may be difficult, seeking alternative technologies to those using rare metals may help the situation, as would increasing the recycling of metals at product end of life.

In terms of recommendations, the report authors advocate: “Greater support for mining, strategic stockpiling of selected materials, international diplomacy, financial support and bilateral agreements with foreign exporters… [to meet] primary supply needs.”

The UKERC and ERP reports have a strong focus on the implications of potential primary material shortages for the UK’s decarbonization, however the global implications are clear.