Pursuing Renewable Energy Systems Without Causing Materials Shortages

3 weeks ago by Tyler Charboneau

While the race to construct renewable energy systems is raging, many fear widespread system production will cause materials scarcity. Companies need to consider the short and long-term ramifications of resource consumption, should these projects have viability.

Per the Paris Agreement, the EU has agreed to ambitious, medium-to-long term climate action. By 2030, the Union has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% compared to 1990. 32% of all energy consumption must stem from renewable energy. Many more sweeping changes will occur by 2050. The EU plans to reduce emissions by 80 to 95% via coordinated member efforts⁠—again, compared to 1990. Naturally, those goals raise immediate questions about how the EU will get there.

With concerns mounting over human-accelerated climate change, renewable energy production seems to be our answer. Not only are these sources nearly infinite, but they produce far fewer carbon emissions than the long-standing alternatives.

In order (according to energy authority Power Technology), the 5 most popular renewable sources globally are as follows:

  • Hydropower

  • Wind power

  • Solar power

  • Bio-power

  • Geothermal power

 

Each has its own manufacturing requirements and geographical requirements. In the case of hydropower, the globe is rife with waterways that meet the requisite conditions for ample power production. Accordingly, hydropower accounts for 16% of the world’s global energy production: it’s a proven solution.

Geothermal power is geographically-dependent, as only certain locations worldwide generate the heat needed for sustained energy production. Bio-energy is similar, as most traditional biomass sources are agricultural. Not all climates and regions lend themselves to this.

 

Landscape of industrial pollution.

A landscape of industrial pollution. Image credit: Pixnio.

 

The Wind and Solar Revolution

Wind power is growing at a breakneck pace, yet it is the target of the most skepticism. For good reason, the technical requirements of this energy source have given companies and countries pause. Key internal components of wind energy systems are made from rare earth elements (REEs), which are expensive to mine and dispersed in select locations globally. Despite the misleading nomenclature, rare earth elements are actually quite abundant worldwide. However, such deposits aren’t concentrated, meaning a huge amount of work must be done to uncover and process them.

On top of this, most of these materials aren’t plentiful in the EU, making renewables production dependent on foreign imports. As countries expand their wind turbine grids, these REEs are at risk of gradual depletion.

As Wind Power Monthly explains, there are three main elements used in the wind industry: neodymium, dysprosium, and praseodymium. The magnets essential to wind turbine operation rely on these REEs. Accordingly, such magnets are immense. We’ve witnessed the rise of massive wind farms in the UK and EU member states, such as Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and France. Despite their efficiency and reduced carbon footprint, farm production requires a staggering quantity of REEs.

 

Design and Geographical Differences

Wind turbines commonly rely on permanent magnet synchronous generators (PMSGs). These components are REE-dependent. Neodymium magnets are extremely powerful and adept at generating electricity. Companies use these components in 2 main turbine designs: geared and direct drive. Generally, direct-drive turbines are low-maintenance. For that reason, they’re commonly found in offshore farms, but unfortunately, such systems use significantly high quantities of REEs.

The world’s largest companies like Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy and General Electric use direct-drive systems offshore. Onshore, the story is a little different industry-wide.

While most wind turbines globally don’t use PMSGs, the EU’s Joint Research Centre expects 72% of turbines to employ the technology by 2030.

 

Wind farm offshore.

A densely-packed offshore wind farm. Image credit: Carbon Brief.

 

The EU is comprised of numerous member states, many of which are landlocked. Thankfully, those nations haven’t the need for offshore (direct-drive) turbines. As these farms are more accessible, it’s easier to use geared designs. Companies need smaller quantities of REEs to produce these, which makes the technology attainable.

However, coastal nations are exposed to greater risk. Geographically speaking, certain countries may have less available acreage to accommodate large wind farms. Additionally, for those that do, governmental and societal pressures may push farms offshore. These offshore farms commonly rely on direct-drive technologies, which consume more REEs. EU countries dependent on offshore grids will incur most of the resource cost.

Political concerns enter into play as well. Countries like China own the vast majority of REE mines, and there the volume. For China and other nations like Russia that have a relative monopoly on REE production, pricing adjustments and shortages can massively impact global farm production—determining if projects even get off the ground. These factors also influence which turbine designs that companies will choose.

In many instances, companies are using alternative (sometimes hybridized) turbine technologies. These electrically excited-synchronous generators (EESGs) and doubly-fed induction generators (DFIGs) are based on both direct drive and geared designs. Exploring innovative new generator technologies may be a good pathway to mitigating materials shortages.

 

A wind farm in rural UK.

A wind farm in rural UK (Harlock Hill Site in Ulverston). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

 

Multi-industry Impacts

So, the rise of wind farms in Europe can contribute massively to materials shortages—that much is clear. However, this production can impact other industries. As Wind Power Monthly describes, wind farms will compete with products from other industries for available REEs.

The smartphone industry, healthcare industry, and the rising EV industry rely on neodymium, dysprosium, and praseodymium. The EV world is rapidly gaining steam, in particular. As these vehicles become mainstream, manufacturers may well look to seize REEs and solidify their supply chains. Conversely, any shortages incurred by the wind revolution may negatively impact these industries. For that reason, widespread wind-farm production is something of a give and take. At the very least, these two-way impacts are worthy of consideration. 

When only a few suppliers of REEs control the market, problems can quickly mount. Wind farms are already expensive to build. That’s not to say the outlook is pessimistic—after all, these farms should pay for themselves—but there are pricing concerns that affect viability.

 

The Future of Wind Power

Overall, renewable energy sources like wind hold immense promise. They’re environmentally-friendly and can offset carbon emissions that mitigate climate change. Is the threat for materials shortages there? Absolutely. The fact that Europe relies so heavily on foreign REE imports is worrisome. However, the emergence of new turbine technologies and geographical differences muddy the prognosis.

Manufacturers are not ready to raise the alarm quite yet, but they need to operate under the assumption that REEs are scarce. Countries like the Netherlands have shown us the promise of wind farms on a national scale. Whether we can effectively scale continental solutions remains a very pressing question.

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