OPN renewable energy
Sunlight, wind, water, and biomass offer eco-friendly alternatives to fossil fuels, but their sustainability rests upon a complex web of factors. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Renewable resources, the bedrock of our sustainable energy future, are under scrutiny as their long-term viability comes into question. Sunlight, wind, water, and biomass offer eco-friendly alternatives to fossil fuels, but their sustainability rests upon a complex web of factors. This analysis delves into the intricate interplay between these resources, essential minerals, and the innovations needed to ensure a sustainable energy landscape.

Renewable resources: Balancing act

Renewable resources, lauded for their low environmental impact and global accessibility, face an uncertain future. Their sustainability hinges on multifaceted variables, including consumption rates, resource availability, environmental and social consequences, and technological breakthroughs. The path to securing renewable resources for future generations is far from guaranteed and demands prudent management today and beyond.

The vital role of renewable resources

Renewable resources are key to displacing finite energy sources like fossil fuels and nuclear power, which harm the environment and human health. Solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and bioenergy offer clean, abundant energy that can meet the surging demand for electricity while curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, this vision assumes the availability and sustainability of the resources and technologies that underpin renewable energy production.

The crucial role of minerals

Minerals like copper, nickel, manganese, cobalt, lithium, graphite, and rare earth elements (REEs) are the lifeblood of clean energy technologies powering solar photovoltaic modules, wind turbines, batteries, electrolysers, and fuel cells. However, the reliability of these minerals is far from guaranteed, vulnerable to geological scarcity, geopolitical tensions, environmental and social repercussions, and market dynamics.

IEA's stark warning

The International Energy Agency (IEA) sounds the alarm, revealing that supply and investment plans for critical minerals fall far short of what is required to accelerate the deployment of solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles. The Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), aiming for net-zero emissions by 2070, anticipates a staggering 4 to 6-fold increase in mineral demand by 2040. Recent price surges have ignited investor interest and scepticism in the energy transition, coining the term "greenflation" to highlight the threat posed by renewable materials, minerals, and technologies to global warming mitigation.

The scarcity vs. sustainability debate

While strategies exist to mitigate supply risks, it is imperative to differentiate between mineral scarcity and sustainability. McKinsey & Company's latest report warns of impending shortages, projecting a potential 20% shortfall in nickel and a daunting 70% deficit in dysprosium, a rare earth element crucial for electric motors. Copper, nickel, and rare earth elements top the list of most demanded minerals, followed by lithium and graphite. These shortages could impede global decarbonisation efforts, leading to price fluctuations and volatility.

The finite nature of minerals

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) provides estimates of world mineral reserves essential for renewable energy technology. Irrespective of the scale of these reserves, it is evident that minerals critical to renewable energy are finite and thus inherently unsustainable.

A holistic approach

A holistic approach must extend beyond energy source considerations to encompass the technical facets of renewable energy production. If the minerals driving these technologies are not guaranteed to be sustainable, how can we ensure the sustainability of natural energy sources like sun, wind, and water? These sources can only be deemed sustainable if all components of their production are also sustainable.

IEA's prescribed policy actions

The IEA prescribes a series of policy actions to secure a sustainable supply of critical minerals. These include bolstering mineral data and information, fortifying supply chain resilience and transparency, promoting responsible mining practices, scaling up recycling and material efficiency, and fostering innovation and diversification.

Innovation as a viable path

Innovation emerges as a promising avenue for reducing mineral dependence. Transitioning to technologies with reduced mineral requirements could alleviate sustainability concerns.

Securing the future of renewable resources necessitates the assurance of associated minerals. Alternatively, innovation-driven shifts toward technologies less reliant on minerals may provide a viable solution.

For a greener future

The analysis suggests that these materials may not endure in a net-zero scenario without substantial mitigation measures. While current reserves may meet renewable energy demand in the short term, ongoing supply challenges and risks demand vigilant monitoring and analysis. Exploring alternative sources and substitutes, alongside diversification and innovation, is pivotal to safeguarding supply security and sustainability in the quest for a greener future.

— Dr Abdullah Belhaif Al Nuaimi is a former UAE minister of Infrastructure Development and for Climate Change and Environment