The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the dangers of our ongoing dependence on imported materials. The shortages at the beginning of the outbreak were due to the pandemic’s crushing blow to goods movement – including medical and paper products from overseas. But this is not news. The debate over dependence on foreign oil, for example, is what ignited the green revolution in the United States.
The push toward green energy was founded on the premise of ending our dependence on imported energy resources. Environmentalists and predominantly progressive thinkers called for renewable resources to be adopted and for those to replace our dependence on foreign oil. It sounds good, but from where do all those materials needed for our green energy resources actually come? Hint: the raw materials are imported from foreign countries.
Critically, as the need for some rare minerals used in energy storage, solar panels, and all electric vehicles increases, the supply reliability decreases. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in 2019, the U.S. imported more than 50% of at least 46 different minerals used in green technologies. Seventeen of the green technology minerals are 100% imported.
The problem is getting worse. According to the United States Energy Information Administration (USEIA), demand for lithium, graphite, and cobalt is expected to grow 500% by mid-century to meet clean energy demand. During a June 24, 2020, hearing of the United States Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Alaska Senator, and Committee Chair, Lisa Murkowski said: “The pandemic has shown how delicate the supply chains are. Awareness is building. It is just painfully slow.”
Attempting to address the present and looming problem, Murkowski is promoting the bipartisan American Mineral Security Act, S. 1317, which seeks to create a more robust domestic mineral industry, in part by recycling. The bill would also require the Department of the Interior to develop and maintain a list of minerals critical to the economic prosperity and national security of the United States by improving the process of locating, developing, and using those vital minerals.
In testimony before the Committee, Joe Bryan of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center noted that supply disruptions of cobalt during the pandemic, mostly coming from the unstable Democratic Republic of Congo, is used in lithium-ion batteries – and these batteries are a core platform of the clean green 21st century.
Not only is the United States dependent upon foreign sources for the raw materials needed to make green technology, a large portion of the technology itself is also made overseas. According to the International Energy Association, 60% of solar panels are made in China.
So, where does the U.S. stand on battery production? At present, China has 53 active battery mega-factories. Another 54 are being built. Meanwhile, the U.S. has gone from three to nine battery mega-factories, with only three operating, according to USEIA.
During Bryan’s testimony before Congress, he did mention that Ohio is opening up a new battery plant. “We can’t change geology and create resources where they don’t exist. But we can change direction and compete for supply chain jobs in minerals processing, anode, cathode, and cell production.”
Minerals and manufacturing are the building blocks of the “green future.” Absent a course correction soon, the green future will not be an independent energy future.