Why minerals are critical to solving the energy trilemma

Cleantech and renewables are key to the global energy transition, but significant development is needed if renewable power is to replace conventional power. A crucial and perhaps underappreciated ingredient in this transition is critical minerals

Global economic hardship, extreme weather, war and political opportunism have combined to cause major disruptions in energy supply chains worldwide. These factors underpin the problem of the so-called global energy trilemma: the need for governments to ensure affordable, reliable and sustainable energy supplies. 

As the world comes to terms with the environmental impacts and supply chain vulnerabilities associated with conventional power, the need for a global energy transition has never looked more urgent. But significant investment and infrastructure development are required to bring about a future powered by clean, renewable energy.

Key to the transition are critical minerals. Cobalt, silicon, manganese, zinc, rare earths; the world will need huge quantities of these and many other minerals if renewable power is to replace conventional power. This data, compiled from the International Energy Agency, explores the scale of the critical minerals gap.

Survey results from 2022 show that clean energy sources account for about 40% of global power capacity. However, the balance is quickly shifting in favour of renewables.

By 2027, the IEA expects solar power to overtake coal as the world’s largest single source of capacity. Moreover, in just four years renewables are expected to account for more capacity than conventional energy sources worldwide.

To enable the scale of development neeeded to support the global energy transition, the world will need more critical minerals – a lot more.

Solar and wind together will increase critical mineral demand by roughly 2 megatonnes (Mt) by 2030, while the mineral demand for electric vehicles and battery storage will jump to almost 7Mt.

To put that into perspective, 1Mt equals 1 million tonnes, 1 billion kilograms, or the weight of 81,000 double-decker London buses.

Batteries require lithium; EVs need significant amounts of graphite, cobalt and manganese; and nickel is a key element in both EVs and wind energy production.

Under a sustainable development scenario, the IEA predicts lithium demand in 2040 to be 42 times higher than it was in 2020, 25 times higher for graphite and 21 times higher for cobalt.

And while clean energy technology accounted for 29% of lithium demand worldwide in 2020, 15% of total cobalt demand and only 8% of total nickel demand, by 2040 those shares jump to 92% for lithium, 69% for cobalt and 61% for nickel under a sustainable development scenario.

So what does the mineral demand look like in terms of power generation?

In order to produce 1MW of power – the amount needed to supply the average power requirements of 2,000 homes in the UK for one hour – offshore and onshore wind projects both require more than 10,000kg of critical minerals; solar PV requires nearly 7,000kg.

Compare that to coal, which requires less than 2,500kg of minerals to produce 1MW of power, or natural gas, which requires a mere 1,148kg.

But power generation aside, it’s EVs and batteries that will be responsible for some of the highest levels of mineral consumption in a sustainable scenario.

Just one electric vehicle uses up 53kg of copper, 40kg of nickel, nearly 25kg of manganese and a whopping 66kg of graphite. Not to mention the combined 22kg of lithium and cobalt. Meanwhile, the total mineral demand for a conventional vehicle is less than 24kg.