Luncheon – November 6, 2009

Title: Resource Constraints on Alternative Energy Technologies

Speaker: Dr Jim Burnell, Colorado Geological Survey

Date: November 6, 2009

Publication: The Outcrop, November 2009, p. 28-29

The move to increase the proportion of renewable energy in the U.S. has become a hot topic in the media and in the political arena. The popular refrain is that we will use renewables to reduce our dependence on imported sources. One aspect that is overlooked, however, is that the hardware for renewable technologies is strongly dependent on minerals — mined commodities — for which the U.S. is currently dependent upon imports. The demand for these commodities by industries outside the “alternative energy” sphere will exacerbate price and supply constraints on their use.

Copper, gallium, indium, selenium, ultra-high purity silica, cadmium and tellurium are required for the dominant photovoltaic technologies. Silver and aluminum are necessary for thermal solar power technology. Zinc, vanadium, lithium, nickel, cobalt, platinum group metals (PGM), and rare earth elements (REE) are key components of power storage, hybrid vehicle, and fuel cell applications. All these materials must be mined and most are derived from other countries.

The prices of critical and strategic metals showed a strong spike just before the recession as competition for limited supply was spurred by developing economies and by expanded applications for the metals. While price pressure has relaxed, the market for most of the materials remains strong and promises to move rapidly as economies rebound.

Sources for many of the commodities are not necessarily reliable for the U.S. For example, most of our germanium and tellurium originate in the copper belt of central Africa; China supplies the majority of our gallium and all of our indium and rare earth elements. The world’s developing economies are competing aggressively for supplies to the point of restricting and eliminating exports of the raw materials. Development of “alternative energy” sources may shift our import dependence from hydrocarbons to minerals unless domestic supplies are developed.