The growth of a clean energy system depends on the availability of resources vital for its successful development. Continual measuring and monitoring of the availability of all such resources (land, water, raw materials, minerals, or metals) is needed, as natural metals and minerals play a significant role in the growth of a sustainable energy system. To determine an adequate raw material supply (especially metals and minerals) to transition to a zero-carbon energy system, it is crucial to evaluate the following factors:
- Are there enough resources available to meet the collective requirement of extra supplies needed over the energy transition?
- Will material supply grow at a sufficient rate to fulfil the increasing requirements of the new resources?
The markets for several essential commodities are expected to rise, owing to their usage in green energy technology. The most common materials used are steel, aluminium, neodymium, nickel, and copper. Additionally, a variety of other industrial or commercial applications, such as the usage of copper in electronics and steel in the construction of modern infrastructure, increases the requirement for these elements. Some green energy solutions have more specialised requirements for materials, such as polysilicon and lithium, which are used in solar panels and batteries. Approximately 7bn tons of final resources will be needed to shift to cleaner energy, which is roughly the amount of a year’s coal usage. Out of the overall amount of end-use material needed for the energy shift, 95% is made up of steel, aluminium, and copper requirements. However, the impact of the energy revolution on future demand for these three substances differs tremendously (refer to Table 1).
A few of the vital essential minerals have insignificant demands with respect to their weights. As an example, it will likely take a maximum of 1m tons of pure lithium generation per year to manufacture all the batteries needed to completely electrify cars across the globe in 2050, with material recycling expected to play a vital role in meeting a significant portion of any consequent requirements. However, these minerals have a much greater proportional importance regarding price. At present, 1m tons of pure lithium could be worth $370bn, which is extremely high compared with the current price of steel (i.e., 170m tons of steel cost roughly $100bn). As per the status of these materials, the collective demand for all the materials necessary for the energy revolution will be less than a year’s coal supply (by weight), and steel makes up more than 75% of demand (refer to Figure 1).
The above observations and analysis show that there is no basic scarcity of essential supplies to enable a worldwide shift to a zero-emission economy and sustain growing economies, driven by significantly higher usage of energy. Despite this upbeat analysis, for certain resources, the projected stocks at this time are not enough to fulfil the levels of demand anticipated from the transformation of traditional energy and other futuristic requirements. To fulfil the predicted demand (2020–50), material reserves may need to increase up to 90% for silver, 70% for nickel, and 30% for copper. However, converting these resources into reserves should not be significantly difficult. The reserves are typically expected to rise over time, owing to a mix of technological advancements, financial benefits, and increasing exploration.