Critical minerals are those that are required for important applications and are at risk for supply disruption . Example applications are high technology devices, defense applications and energy technologies. Low-carbon technologies require a wide range of critical minerals. For example, batteries require cobalt, lithium, nickel, manganese, and graphite, whereas wind turbines and electric vehicles require rare earth elements .
Abundant access to critical minerals is crucial for the popular low-carbon energy technologies. Why? Because these technologies require several-fold larger amounts of critical minerals compared to conventional technologies .
Currently, adequate access to critical minerals is not an issue because the deployment levels of low-carbon technologies are very small. For example, wind and solar combined provide less than 5% of the total global energy and electric cars represent 1% of the total global car stock [4,5].
But a low-carbon energy transition will cause a drastic change. The deployment of solar, wind, battery energy storage and electric cars will need to increase enormously over the next few decades. An extraordinary increase in the production of critical minerals will be required to support such a deployment [3,6].
Mining and processing of minerals is extremely resource intensive. Examples of resources are energy, land, water, chemicals, and labor. History has shown that resource intensive processes when carried out at very large scales have serious unintended consequences.
Also, resource intensive processes have high associated costs and can lead to supply concerns. Such concerns are expected to increase with an increasing demand for these materials.
The key concerns about critical minerals are summarized below [2,3,6]:
Concern about energy security: The production and processing of critical minerals is concentrated in fewer geographical locations than fossil fuels . For example, just three countries control the global output for lithium, cobalt, and rare earth metals. Moreover, certain countries such as China have an alarmingly large share. Chinese companies have also made large investments in countries–such as Australia, Chile, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia–that have large capabilities for producing critical minerals. In other words, the few countries who currently control the supply of critical minerals could control the global energy supply. This is an energy security risk for the rest of the world.
Concern about environmental impact: Examples of environmental impact related to the production and processing of critical minerals are soil erosion, soil contamination, biodiversity loss, contamination of water bodies by chemicals, reduced surface water storage capacity, hazardous waste, and air pollution from fine particles. A large increase in the production and processing of mineral resources could markedly increase the risk of severe environmental impacts.
Concern about costs and supply: Several factors contribute to the cost and supply risk of minerals. Key factors are highlighted. A decrease in the quality of resources in the future is a significant concern. The extraction of metals from inferior quality ores requires more energy and creates more waste. Thus, deteriorating quality of resources impacts both cost and the environment. Mining projects typically require many years to move from discovery to production–which has significant supply related implications. Also, the massive and long-term need for critical minerals can cause periodic disruptions in energy supply, which can lead to large cost fluctuations.
What about recycling? Will that easily solve the problem?
Recycling involves the collecting and processing of materials that would otherwise be discarded as trash and turning them into new products. Recycling has several benefits such as reducing waste, conserving resources, and avoiding pollution.
But recycling has some major challenges. Several requirements must be satisfied simultaneously for successful recycling. The requirements include a) an efficient process for collecting and separating materials at the end-of-life, b) a recycling process that can provide the desired material quality with low processing losses, and c) a stable long-term supply of the recycled material.
It is very difficult to satisfy such requirements because of the logistical, technical, and cost challenges. The degree of the challenge depends on the type of material that is being recycled and nature of the application.
The difficulty in achieving high recycle rates is evident from historical data. For reference, we will consider plastic waste and electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) recycling.
According to recent OECD reports, less than 10% of global plastic waste is recycled [8,9]. For reference, the recycling rate for plastics in 2018 was only about 9% in the United States .
Recycling of e-waste has also been low. The world produces about 50 tons of e-waste annually. Although e-waste contains expensive materials, only 20% of the e-waste is formally recycled according to the United Nations Environment Programme .
What is the current state of recycling for the low-carbon technologies?
In case of solar power, the solar panels require the largest amounts of raw materials. Historically, recycling of solar panels has been very small. For example, only about 10% of the solar panels in the U.S. are recycled . In case of wind power, about 85% of the wind turbine blades can be supposedly recycled . But current recycle rates are very low because of the challenges [14,15].
Moreover, recycling cannot satisfy the massive critical minerals needs of the low-carbon technologies. There are two reasons.
First, the current recycling of critical minerals is far from adequate. For example, less than 1% of lithium is recycled .
Second, even if high rates of recycling were miraculously achieved for all critical minerals, only a small fraction of the critical minerals demand can be met by recycling. Why? Because addressing the goals of the Paris Agreement requires a rapid increase in low-carbon technologies and thereby rapid access to large amounts of critical minerals.
Considering the challenges and the historical data from other technologies, the hope that recycling will be an easy solution is not realistic.
Summary: The main concerns related to the critical minerals required for a low-carbon transition are energy security, environmental impact, supply risk and cost escalation. Any of these can cause serious problems. For example, a few countries control the production and processing of some of the critical minerals. This poses an energy security risk for the rest of the world. What about recycling? Several requirements must be satisfied simultaneously for successful recycling. The requirements include a) an efficient process for collecting and separating materials at the end-of-life, b) a recycling process that can provide the desired material quality with low processing losses, and c) a stable long-term supply of the recycled material. Examples from history–such as plastics and e-waste–inform that it is extremely difficult to satisfy such requirements because of logistical, technological, and cost challenges.
The levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) metric is commonly used to compare the electricity costs from these technologies. Such comparisons are widely used to argue that the electricity generated from solar and wind has lower cost than that from fossil fuels. As discussed below, this is scientifically incorrect.
Solar and wind technologies provide electricity on an intermittent basis, i.e., they lack the functionality to meet 24X7 electricity demand. On the other hand, fossil fuel and nuclear power plants provide 24X7 electricity. The U.S. Energy Information Administration lists solar and wind in a separate category because of this important distinction . Solar and wind are listed as resource-constrained technologies, while nuclear and fossil fuel power plants are listed as dispatchable technologies.
The intermittency challenge of solar and wind causes imbalance between electricity production and demand [2,3]. Electricity is only generated during certain hours of the day in case of solar and wind. But electricity demand exists around-the-clock, which causes an imbalance. The imbalance is addressed by lowering or increasing the output from the dispatchable power plants [4,5].
Essentially, the dispatchable power plants are forced to sacrifice their performance to accommodate solar and wind power. This forced inefficient use of the dispatchable power plants causes an overall sub-optimization of the electrical grid . This increases the overall electricity cost .
The forced curtailing (i.e., restricting) of electricity production from solar or wind is another instance of sub-optimization . For example, California was forced to curtail 1,500,000,000 kWh of electricity production from solar in 2020 because of the imbalance between production and demand . How much is 1,500,000,000 kWh? The global average consumption of electricity per person in 2020 was about 3300 kWh . Thus, in 2020, California was forced to curtail the amount of electricity that would have met the needs of over 400,000 individuals.
The share of electricity generation from solar in California was only about 15% in 2020 . Despite these low levels, California was forced to curtail about 5% of its utility-scale solar electricity production in 2020. These forced curtailments are expected to increase significantly with increasing solar deployment [12,13].
Sub-optimization of the electrical grid has a negative impact on the economics . The extent of sub-optimization increases with increasing deployment of solar and wind power in the grid . Consequently, wide-scale deployment of solar and wind is costly.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently co-published a comprehensive report on this topic . The report provides an example estimate for the cost penalty resulting from the sub-optimization caused by solar and wind. A 10% deployment of solar and wind was found to add a 5% cost penalty to the total electricity cost. Notably, a 50% deployment of solar and wind was found to penalize the total electricity cost by over 40%.
The penalty results from the extra costs related to the deficiencies of solar and wind . These additional costs arise from the variability of power output, uncertainty in power generation and increase in costs for transmission and distribution associated with solar and wind power .
The costs that are routinely reported in media do not include the cost penalties. Thus, the reported costs do not reflect the true costs for solar and wind power. Only partial costs of solar and wind power are widely reported in media. Consequently, the reported costs cannot be directly compared with dispatchable technologies.
Media is flooded with articles advertising that solar and wind power is cost competitive with fossil fuel power. Such cost comparisons are misleading unless the shortcomings and related implications are also highlighted. Unfortunately, valid cost comparisons are not discussed in media. By excluding crucial information, these media reports provide an incorrect perception about the true cost of a low-carbon transition.
Summary: Solar and wind cannot generate 24X7 electricity on a standalone basis. Therefore, their costs cannot be directly compared with technologies that can generate 24X7 electricity. The effect of intermittency must be included in a realistic cost comparison. When the intermittency deficiency is included in the cost estimate, the costs for solar and wind power increase significantly. The cost increase is directly proportional to the extent of deployment. Higher solar and wind power in the electrical grid equals higher cost penalty. Unfortunately, most publications focus only on the partial costs of solar and wind power, i.e., they exclude costs related to the intermittency deficiency of solar and wind power .
Over the decades, media and certain scientists have greatly exaggerated the speed and magnitude of the impact from climate change. Essentially, they have been catastrophizing. For example, the renowned physicist John Holdren proposed in the 1980s that human-caused climate change could kill a billion people because of famine by the year 2020 . Such proposals have no credibility because they are purely speculative, i.e., they are not based on robust science . The global scientific community does NOT support such proposals.
The global scientific community does support the general conclusions from the climate science community . Why? Because the findings of the climate experts are based on extensive research. Thousands of climate scientists have gathered vast amounts of climate data using a suite of climate monitoring tools [4,5,6]. The scientists have used the climate data and established scientific principles to understand the climate system. These studies have been documented in over a hundred thousand scientific papers .
Many climate impacts are now understood with high to very high confidence because of these studies . For example, there is strong evidence for the rising temperatures and sea levels, receding glaciers, ocean acidification, and the increasing frequency and intensity of hot extremes. Consequently, an overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is a serious problem [9,10,11].
Significant uncertainty yet exists in understanding several other issues about climate change because of inadequate data . However, the climate impacts that are understood with high confidence are by themselves adequate to demonstrate that human-caused climate change is a serious problem.
Wild exaggerations by media or certain scientists do not change the validity of these conclusions. We will consider an analogy. The medical community has concluded that smoking tobacco is dangerous to human health based on extensive research [12,13]. Wild exaggerations by a few doctors–made in the past, present, or future–do not decrease the trustworthiness of the conclusion.
Summary: Wild speculations by certain scientists and media should not be used as an excuse to ignore critical findings from the global climate experts. The findings of the climate experts are based on extensive research. Consequently, major scientific organizations agree that human-caused climate change is a serious problem that requires urgent attention . Wild exaggerations by media or certain scientists do not change the validity of these conclusion.
References & Notes
Subsidies are financial incentives from the government. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), fossil fuels receive about 425 billion dollars per year in global subsidies [1,2].
What is the source of the several trillion-dollar subsidies claim? IMF Reports
According to a series of reports from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the costs associated with external impacts from fossil fuels should also be included as subsidies [3,4]. Consequently, health and other costs related to air pollution and climate impacts are also included as subsidies in the reports. The IMF reports estimate the cost from the external impacts to be several trillion dollars per year.
For example, the recent 2021 IMF report claimed that the global subsidies for fossil fuels were 5.9 trillion dollars in 2020 . The 2021 report is considered as the reference IMF report for this article. The claim in the report has significant credibility problems as discussed below .
Historically, the costs from external impacts such as pollution have been addressed via control policies/technologies. The cost-efficiency for such control technologies is very high. For example, U.S. EPA estimates that the cost of air pollution control technology is 30 times lower than the costs arising from air pollution . Thus, a 35-billion-dollar investment in air pollution control technology can eliminate a trillion-dollar cost. In other words, the external cost figures in the report are highly exaggerated.
The report includes road congestion, road accidents and road damage as an external impact from fossil fuels [7,8]. That is like saying the agriculture industry is responsible for the growing obesity in the global population.
To make matters worse from a credibility viewpoint, road congestion, traffic accidents and road damage represent the costliest impact from gasoline in the IMF report. So, based on the report, the largest component of the gasoline subsidy is related to its contribution to road congestion, traffic accidents and road damage.
Clearly, the costs discussed in the IMF reports are exaggerated and misleading. Most media reports do not discuss these critical facts. They only advertise that fossil fuels receive several trillion dollars of subsidies . This misinformation has been soaked up by the general population and is causing confusion about the societal costs related to the low-carbon energy transition.
References & Notes
Electric vehicles - Why the recent Consumer Report can mislead from the viewpoint of climate change mitigation discussions
Consumer Reports recently released a report titled: Electric vehicles Ownership Costs: Todays Electric Vehicles Offer Big Savings for Consumers . As discussed below, the analysis in the Consumer report is highly localized. The report because of its apples-to-oranges type analysis can mislead the general population and policy makers from the viewpoint of understanding the CO2 reduction cost effectiveness of electric vehicles.
Some related issues with the report analysis  are listed below-
A concern with the above localized analysis is that it could be misinterpreted and indirectly lead to poor policy decisions and correspondingly inefficient climate change mitigation. Effective policy decisions involve providing subsidies/incentives for the most effective replacement solutions. The above requires a robust prioritization analysis of the proposed replacement technology solutions which includes a cost-effectiveness analysis. In order to understand the cost-effectiveness of the solutions, the technology evaluation analysis should NOT include subsidies and short-term local discounts. A robust analysis should highlight the intrinsic cost related to the new technology and consider all relevant major costs.
Such an analysis is briefly provided below.
The best approach to compare the conventional and electric vehicle technologies is by considering vehicles with the same trim from the same manufacturer. Such data is available for Hyundai Kona.
To facilitate a robust comparison between conventional and electric vehicle technology in this analysis, a Hyundai Kona conventional vehicle is compared with Hyundai Kona electric vehicle with the same trim (SEL) (Table 1).
Table 1. Comparison of conventional and electric vehicle technologies using Hyundai Kona as a surrogate [4,5]
Using Table 1 data and other necessary information , the total cost of ownership for the current electric vehicle technology is estimated to be at-least three thousand dollars higher than the conventional vehicle technology, which is an opposite result compared to the Consumer report analysis (which indicates several thousand dollars lower total ownership cost for electric car technology). The result obtained in this analysis is in excellent agreement with a recent detailed study from the MIT Energy Initiative . The contradictory results with respect to the consumer report are expected considering that the effect of technology on vehicle price is grossly dampened in the report because of a lack of an apples-to-apples comparison .
Based on Table 1 and other apples-to-apple comparisons [7,9,10], the electric vehicle technology currently has 50 to 65 % higher upfront investment cost compared to a conventional vehicle. This leads to major concerns about the cost effectiveness of current electric vehicle technology for climate change mitigation.
Since it is important to decrease annual CO2 emissions rapidly, providing subsidies to a technology with relatively high upfront costs disallows efficient use of our limited resources. This stems from the fact that there are several other technologies with much lower upfront costs that provide far more cost-effective CO2 emission reductions . As a result, policy decisions that will subsidize the current electric vehicle technology will take away from other technologies that are far more effective in CO2 reduction; i.e. such policy decisions will decrease climate change mitigation effectiveness. Note, this discussion pertains to policy decisions; i.e. individuals and organizations that can afford it should be encouraged to utilize electric vehicle technology (just not at the taxpayer expense).
Some technology comparison examples will be discussed in upcoming blogs. However, if a reader would like access to the information right away it can be found in a recently released book, which focuses on the practical effectiveness comparison of different CO2 reduction technologies .
References/Notes (websites last accessed on Nov. 1, 2020)
 Consumer Reports, October 2020. https://advocacy.consumerreports.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/EV-Ownership-Cost-Final-Report-1.pdf
 Official Nissan website: https://www.nissanusa.com/shopping-tools/build-price/cars/nissan-leaf/2020/62-kwh/28971:BABWy:AsKD5hU/exterior
 Note: Historically a replacement technology has succeeded on a widescale only if was at-least equivalent to the incumbent technology in terms of all the main characteristics. From Table 1 it is clear that the conventional vehicle has a large total driving range advantage over the electric vehicle version. This condition is clearly not met for the current electric vehicle technology. In other words, the direct comparison between the technologies as considered in Table 1 is giving a significant benefit of doubt to the electric vehicle technology; i.e. it is assuming that the driving range disadvantage will soon be overcome via technology improvements.
 Official Hyundai website: https://www.hyundaiusa.com/us/en/vehicles/kona/sel; https://www.hyundaiusa.com/us/en/vehicles/kona-electric/sel
 Official US Government website for fuel economy information: https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/Find.do?action=sbs&id=42089&id=41421&#tab1
 Fuel costs were obtained directly from official US Government website for fuel economy information (reference 4); gasoline price based on baseline case for annual energy outlook U.S. EIA (https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/); Maintenance cost $0.031/mile for electric vehicles and $0.061/mile for conventional vehicle (from reference 1: Table 2.1); home charger equipment and installation cost: $1000; sales tax: 6% (nationwide average- https://auto.howstuffworks.com/under-the-hood/cost-of-car-ownership/cost-of-taxes-on-your-car1.htm); interest rate: 3% (this is too low based on historical U.S. market return on investment but used here only to match with reference 1: https://www.businessinsider.com/personal-finance/average-stock-market-return); vehicle insurance: 10% higher annual cost for electric vehicles (lower end value based on https://www.valuepenguin.com/how-having-electric-car-affects-your-auto-insurance-rates); lifetime vehicle miles: 200,000 miles (similar to reference 1).
 MIT Energy Initiative, Insights into Future Mobility (2019): http://energy.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Insights-into-Future-Mobility.pdf
 Note: Since the vast majority of the discrepancy between the consumer report analysis and the above analysis and the MIT analysis is directly related to upfront investment (i.e. vehicle retail price), the estimation example based on Table 1 is adequate for a general understanding of cost of total ownership of electric vehicles.
 McKinsey & Company. Making electric vehicles profitable: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/automotive-and-assembly/our-insights/making-electric-vehicles-profitable
 Critical comparison of low-carbon technologies: A practical guide to prioritizing energy technologies for climate change mitigation. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08LP8TRLP
Over the years, several low-carbon technologies have been promoted through policy decisions such as incentives, subsidies and/or taxes. And this is expected to increase based on the aggressive commitments by the local/national governments for supporting climate change mitigation.
Clearly, robust policy decisions are becoming even more important for efficient climate change mitigation.
What are robust policy decisions? They are policy decisions that promote the most efficient low-carbon technologies. This is very important considering the negative consequences of sub-optimal policy decisions. For example, policy decisions that promote a less efficient technology essentially take away resources from a more efficient technology.
Robust policy decisions require high quality data. In this case, high quality data refers to systematic prioritization (ranking) data for the different low-carbon technologies.
The primary requirement for the systematic prioritization analysis is the availability of practical effectiveness data for the different low-carbon technologies. The practical effectiveness of a low-carbon technology can be evaluated based on its ability to address the challenges associated with climate change mitigation. These challenges stem from important related issues such as the enormous size of the problem, stringent time-line requirements, competition from other important problems, potential unknowns, etc.
There are a large number of publications that provide detailed technical information about the technology solutions. However, they do not systematically relate the characteristics of the technologies to their ability to address the associated challenges. In other words, these publications do not provide the information needed for a practical effectiveness comparison between the solutions.
And that leads to the gap:
Unavailable practical effectiveness comparison data --> inability to undertake a systematic prioritization analysis --> sub-optimal policy decisions --> inefficient climate change mitigation
A systematic analysis on the following topics is needed for addressing the above important gap:
a) Critical challenges associated with climate change mitigation
b) Comparison of the technologies in terms of their abilities to address the critical challenges
c) Prioritization of the technologies based on this comparison