In addition to the material requirements for renewable technologies explored earlier in this chapter, it is important to understand the changes in the available supply, the geopolitical landscape, and the associated social and environmental impacts, which are outlined below.
11.6.1 Geopolitical Landscape
The geopolitical shift underway in the supply of the resources required for the globe’s future energy mix is clearly illustrated in Fig. 11.12. Whereas the value of the lithium industry is much less than the value of the oil industry, this comparison highlights a distinct shift in the energy commodities that society values. Oil’s rate of use is projected to decline somewhat in the decade ahead (Mohr et al. 2015), whereas lithium’s production is expected to grow rapidly (Mohr et al. 2012).
Although it is not a key focus of this particular chapter, the dominance of China in the supply of rare earths has encouraged manufacturing countries to look at diversifying their supply sources, including through the recovery of rare earths from recycled material. A similar situation of heavily concentrated supply occurs for cobalt, where the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the largest supplier, at around 66,000 tonnes per year. The next four largest cobalt-producing countries (China, Canada, Russia, and Australia) only produce 5–7000 tonnes per year each. The supply chain is also concentrated downstream, with around 50% of cobalt smelted and refined in China.
11.6.2 Social and Environmental Impacts
The mining and supply chain for these metals can have adverse social and environmental consequences for workers, local communities, and the environment. These impacts are most significant for the cobalt mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there are human rights violations, child labour, and severe environmental pollution affecting health (Florin and Dominish 2017).
These types of impacts at mine sites and along the supply chain also influence the availability of primary resources. For example, whereas Australia and Chile are large producers of lithium, large deposits remain undeveloped in Bolivia, due in part to local concerns over the social and environmental impacts. The global silver market receives less media attention than the market for lithium, but the world’s second-largest silver mine (Escobal) in Guatemala is currently closed by a constitutional court ruling that the Xinca Indigenous peoples were not adequately consulted before a mine licence was granted (Jamasmie 2018).
The increased use of materials such as lithium, cobalt, and silver has economic implications for the future of battery manufacture. For example, the cost of cobalt has risen dramatically from US$20000/t in 2016 to US$80000 in 2018 (Tchetvertakov 2018). This is prompting manufacturers to look for alternatives, such as nickel, vanadium, and zinc (Tchetvertakov 2018). At the same time, a significant proportion of these price fluctuations are attributable to non-industrial factors, such as investment and speculation in metal markets, which may also require greater regulation to avoid unnecessary restrictions on renewable energy and storage technologies.
220.127.116.11 Recycling Challenges
Whilst recycling can help to offset primary material demand through recycled sources, there is are technological, social and environmental challenges to increasing recycling. The collection systems and infrastructure required to recycle metals from renewable energy technologies are not well established. For example, although silver has an overall recycling rate of 30–50% (Graedel et al. 2011), almost no recycling of silver from PV panels occurs, because most recycling of PV panels focuses on recycling the glass, aluminium, and copper. Most of the processes used to recycle lithium-ion batteries focus on the recovery of cobalt and nickel, because of their higher price, so that lithium is downcycled into less valuable products, such as cement. It should also be noted that the recycling of some key energy materials, such as rare earths in magnets, does not offer significant cost savings or environmental benefits over their extraction from primary resources (McLellan et al. 2013).
The establishment of effective collection networks is important for recycling. Collection networks must be easily understood and must provide easily accessible deposit mechanisms. Recycling can be both informal and formal, and whereas in some cases, informal collection networks offer greater rates of recycling, the social and environmental impacts can be higher. For example, recycling electronic waste on open fires creates hazardous fumes for informal recyclers and has detrimental effects on the environment. There is also a potential tension between reducing material intensity and the ability to effectively separate, recover, and recycle materials. Increasingly, thin layers of material are being utilized because of improved manufacturing processes, which can reduce the costs of products in their first lifetimes. However, as the material content decreases, the value of the secondary production decreases, making it a less attractive option for investment. Again, the use of advanced, complex materials can sometimes make valuable materials difficult to separate from each other, and this again increases the costs and reduces the profits for investors in recovery processes.
To ensure that social and environmental issues will be addressed, several initiatives across supply chains are being developed, including the China-led Responsible Cobalt Initiative, the Cobalt Institute, the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, Solving the Ewaste Problem (StEP), and the R2 standard for sustainable electronics recycling. In the USA, the Dodd-Frank Act has mandated the traceability of the gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo. This has arisen from the international concern over the social impacts and implications of sourcing metals from that country, and in particular, to avoid supporting conflict and environmental damage. However, cobalt is not explicitly mentioned in the Dodd-Frank Act.
International resource governance that looks beyond renewable energy and beyond a single commodity focus is increasingly recognised as a missing area in environmental policy (Ali et al. 2017). The transition to renewable energy and the associated requirements for resources to support this transition could be a catalyst for advancing such policies.