Saturday, May 28, 2011
Can China hijack green energy?
I'm not talking about Gil Bridges and Ray Monette of the rock band Rare Earth, noted for such hits as "Get Ready" and "I Just Want to Celebrate," although that does make a sort of poetic sense. The band is back together and touring, after all.
No, I'm talking about world domination by China of an industry so important, it's success or failure may mean the difference between survival and mass evacuation in low-lying countries like Bangladesh.
Much of the clean energy industry depends upon extremely obscure elements that have come to be known as rare earth. They have names like lanthanum, cerium, yttrium and neodymium and are used in the manufacture of electric car batteries, wind turbines and solar panels. China has spent the past several years locking up supply of these elements, planning ahead and banking on their value escalating.
And the stakes are high. The recent study, "Energy Policy," by Stanford University professors Mark Delucchi and Mark Jacobson says wind, water and solar could supply all of our energy needs in 20 to 40 years. While that may be unlikely given today's energy mix, the sector is sure to increase despite the domination of increasingly costly and damaging fossil fuels.
Rare earth elements, while relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, are hard to find in "minable concentrations," as the U.S. Geological Survey explains in its 2010 rare earth report. Thus the problem -- and the name.
China, according to USGS, has reserves of 55 million metric tons, while the United States has 19 million metric tons. Both countries dominate known reserves. However, China is better positioned to take advantage of its mines.
"China accounts for 97 percent of the worldwide rare earth metal production and the country's new export quotas have caused prices to skyrocket," write Euan Sadden and Kerry-Ann Adamson of Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research in the May 2011 report "Rare Earth Metals in the Cleantech Industry."
That means if a company wants to build batteries, wind turbines or solar panels, it likely must get its materials from China. However, the Chinese are hardly slouches at trade and their manufacturers have already begun to dominate production of solar panels. Analysts say they intend to the same with the rest of the cleantech industry.
U.S. and European companies looking to build the massive collector sites for wind may find themselves with no other competitive alternative other than purchasing from Chinese suppliers. And for an emerging industry dependent upon falling prices for more universal adoption reliance on a single source could be bad. Real bad.
Ian Fletcher, author of "Free Trade Doesn't Work" and Huffington Post blogger, frames the debate in simple terms.
"Why are they important? For example, the so-called rare earths among these materials are needed to make the super-strong magnets that are needed whenever you want to mechanically generate (or consume) electricity efficiently," Fletcher writes in a recent post. And he says that according to estimates in the recent book "Red Alert," by Stephen Leeb, a 3-megawatt wind turbine contains about 2 tons of rare earth metals.
"Even a humble Toyota Prius contains 22 pounds of lanthanum in its battery," he says. "No lanthanum, no electric cars."
But the news isn't all bad.
Fletcher noted that Congress in 2010 passed the Rare Earths and Critical Materials Revitalization Act, which states that it is meant to "to assure the long-term, secure, and sustainable supply of rare earth materials sufficient to satisfy the national security, economic well-being, and industrial production needs of the United States."
This apparently kept the Mountain Pass mine in California's Mohave desert in domestic hands. Fletcher said Australia similarly checked a Chinese buyout in 2009.
Activity at the Mountain Pass mine, according to USGS, resumed operation in 2007, producing refined rare earth products. The federal agency's report also detailed efforts to develop other commercial-grade mine sites, saying that investment and exploration "surged" in 2010. Sites included Bear Lodge in Wyoming; Diamond Creek in Idaho; Elk Creek in Nebraska; Hoidas Lake in Saskatchewan, Canada; Lemhi Pass in Idaho-Montana; and Nechalacho (Thor Lake) in Northwest Territories, Canada.
Other sites included Dubbo Zirconia in New South Wales, Australia; Kangankunde in Malawi; Mount Weld in Western Australia, Australia; and Nolans Project in Northern Territory, Australia.
The jury's still out. China's in serious production mode as only a state-controlled economy can dictate. But U.S. capitalism has a way of overcoming challenges. The clean energy industry, at least from a purely job creation perspective, offers some very good opportunities worldwide.
It would be nice for the home team to win this one or at least become a World Cup scale competitor.
In the meantime, the band Rare Earth offers this bit of wisdom I'd like to see implemented: "Fe Fi Fo Fo Fum, Look out baby now here I come."