Energy Transition Will Require More Mines, Lots of Them

Steve Fiscor

Last month, the world watched as Russia reduced the flow of natural gas into Europe. The anxiety of possible blackouts and load shedding, not to mention soaring electricity prices, has large and small electricity consumers worried as winter approaches. European steel mills and smelters have suspended production due to high energy prices. The idiotic shelling of the nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine could become the next major environmental disaster. In China, where the price of energy is not a concern, processing plants that produce lithium were forced to idle production to reduce the heat-related stress on its grid. Irony?

Letís talk irony. In the U.S., California mandated all new cars be electric by 2035 and the following weekend asked citizens not to charge them to conserve energy during a period of extreme heat. Newsflash: Itís supposed to get warmer. The shift away from coal and natural gas, or the ďenergy transition,Ē that is supposed to take place in the next 18 years will make the energy industry one of the largest consumers of minerals. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently published The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions. The 287-page report details where the world stands as far as minerals production today with some historical color and the amount of minerals that will be needed to make the energy transition to net zero by 2040. Itís available at: reports/the-role-of-critical-minerals-in-clean-energy-transitions.

In it, the IEA report predicts that the clean energy transition will require 30 times more lithium and 25 times more graphite, nickel and cobalt than the mining industry currently produces. It also says that copper demand for electrical infrastructure will double.

The IEA Critical Mineral report gets a lot of things right. For example, it clearly states that mineral supply and investment plans fall short of what is needed to transform the energy sector. It also explains that the longer the world waits to find new sources (i.e., open new mines), the worse the problem will get. It identifies one of the biggest barriers to meeting this goal: project development lead times. An analysis by S&P Global of major mines that came online between 2010 and 2019 reported that it took on average 16.5 years to develop projects from discovery to production.

Looking at copper alone, 250 mines currently operate in 40 countries to produce 21 million metric tons of copper. This is 30% more than the world produced 10 years ago. Factor in declining ore grades, long lead times and the fact that few major copper projects are currently scheduled to start soon, a 200% increase in production in the next 20 years seems ... laughable. Without the metals to support it, the great energy transition will not happen.

Steve Fiscor, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief, E&MJ

As featured in Womp 2022 Vol 09 -