The global shift to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, and electric vehicles (EV) requires a vast amount of several minerals and metals. While supplying the huge amount of mined materials needed for the coming clean energy transition poses challenges, especially if not managed responsibly and sustainably, World Bank Group sees economic opportunities for some of the world’s poorest regions.
“The World Bank supports a low-carbon transition where mining is climate-smart and value chains are sustainable and green,” said Riccardo Puliti, senior director and head of the energy and extractives global practice at the World Bank. “Developing countries can play a leading role in this transition: developing strategic minerals in a way that respects communities, ecosystems, and the environment.”
To support the mining of renewable energy minerals and metals in developing countries, the World Bank plans to invest roughly US$50 million into a facility called Climate-Smart Mining over a five-year span that began in 2019.
In addition to supporting responsible mining of renewable energy materials, Climate-Smart Mining will invest in the integration of renewable energy into mining operations and the recycling of minerals in developing countries.
A lot of metals, opportunities
World Bank said wind, solar and the batteries that store this energy and power electric vehicles will be the biggest low-carbon technologies that will drive global demand for metals in the coming three decades.
A three-megawatt wind turbine, for example, requires around 4.7 tons of copper, 335 tons of steel, three tons of aluminum, two tons of rare earth elements; not to mention the concrete, zinc, and molybdenum that go into their construction and installation.
Photovoltaic (PV) solar technologies on the other hand need silver, indium, molybdenum, nickel, zinc, copper, and several other metals and minerals.
These metals include common base metals such as copper and aluminum, more exotic metals like vanadium and indium, and even precious metals such as silver.
Take copper for example. World Bank Group estimates that the world will need roughly 550 million tons of this key metal for generating and transmitting electricity over the next 25 years, which is about the same amount humankind has produced in the past 5,000 years.
The batteries needed to store wind and solar energy, as well as power zero-emissions vehicles, are expected to be the biggest renewable energy driver of minerals and metals demand.
Many of these renewable energy minerals and metals are found in developing countries, which provides enormous economic opportunities for the more than 3 billion of the poorest and most vulnerable people on Earth.
“Countries with strategic minerals have a real opportunity to benefit from the global shift to clean energy,” said Puliti.
Batteries are the big driver
While wind and solar are going to require vast amounts of metals, the grid-scale storage required for the electricity they generate and the batteries powering the EVs traveling global highways are forecast to skyrocket the demand for lithium, cobalt, graphite, nickel, and vanadium.
The World Bank predicts that approximately 415,000 tons of lithium will go into low-carbon technologies, primarily batteries by 2050, an astonishing 965 percent jump from around 43,000 tons of the metal produced in 2017.
South American countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Peru are well-positioned to supply much of this skyrocketing lithium demand, according to the World Bank.
Over the same span, renewable energies are expected to require 644,000 tons of cobalt in 2050, which is 585 percent more than the 110,000 tons of global production in 2017.
More than 60 percent of the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an African country rife with political instability, poverty, and social ills. The World Bank, however, believes the DRC’s rich mineral resources could make this sub-Saharan country home to one of the richest economies on the continent and a driver of African growth if it can overcome its political instability and improve governance.
While the percent growth of graphite from 2017 to 2050 is less, at 383 percent, the growth in volume is by far the highest – from 1.2 million tons in 2017 to 4.6 million tons in 2050.
The reason for such robust growth for graphite is this material is one of the largest ingredients in lithium-ion batteries, making up the entire anode of these rechargeable cells.
The East African country of Mozambique is one place with rich graphite resources and is already beginning to benefit from the growing demand for this key lithium-ion battery ingredient.
Lithium-ion batteries and other low-carbon technologies are also expected to require 2.3 million tons of nickel in 2050, which is higher than the 2.1 million tons produced for all the world’s needs in 2017.
“Indonesia has opportunities with bauxite (aluminum mineral) and nickel, as does Malaysia and Philippines – with cobalt – to a lesser extent,” World Bank penned in a report on the role of minerals and metals for low-carbon energy. “Finally, in Oceania, the massive reserves of nickel to be found in New Caledonia should not be overlooked.”
Another emerging battery metal, vanadium, is also expected to see substantial growth over the next three decades.
This is because vanadium redox-flow batteries (VRBs), which use vanadium as both the anode and cathode, could be the answer for storing large amounts of electricity that could be fed into power-grids when the need arises.
“Because of their large-scale storage capacity, development of VRBs could prompt increases in the use of wind, solar, and other renewable, intermittent power sources,” according to the USGS.
The World Bank projects that renewable energy applications will need 138,000 tons of vanadium in 2050, which is 173 percent higher than the 80,000 tons produced globally during 2017.
“While the growing demand for minerals and metals offers an opportunity for mineral-rich developing countries, it also represents a challenge: without climate-smart mining practices, the negative impacts from mining activities will increase, affecting vulnerable communities and environment,” the World Bank wrote.