Leader: Renewables rule?

C&I Issue 5, 2023

Read time: 3 mins

Neil Eisberg | Editor

Globally, electricity generation was the cleanest it has ever been in 2022, according to energy analyst, Ember.

In its latest report, now in its fourth edition, Ember says clean sources of generation, including nuclear and hydro, accounted for 39% of total generation. In terms of renewable generation, wind and solar increased by 19%. Solar generation alone grew by 24%, while sufficient wind turbines were installed globally to provide almost all of the UK’s power demand.

In total, around 12% of global electricity was produced by wind and solar sources in 2022. However, the report also points out that coal electricity generation increased slightly by 1.1% although the use of gas fell slightly by 0.2%.

In 2023, Ember believes renewables are set to meet all global energy demand growth.

Within Europe, however, there is indecision about one renewable energy source – nuclear power. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, energy security rapidly sped up the agenda of European governments. In 2021, for example, in Germany nuclear power accounted for 13.3% of the electricity supply, however of the six operating plants three were switched off at the end of 2021, while the remining three were scheduled for closure by the end of 2022, under a plan pushed through by environmentalists. The invasion, with its impact on natural gas supplies, prevented those closures, although the debate still continues. Elsewhere, European nuclear plants have remained in operation and look set to even expand to meet demand growth.

One of the key drivers for this demand growth is vehicle electrification. This electrification is also forecast, however, to create a variety of economic and supply chain issues, according to research conducted at Cornell University in the US.

Study author Fengqi You points out this will be due to a steep climb in demand for battery-grade lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and platinum. If 40% of vehicles are electrified by 2050, then global lithium demand for battery production will have to increase by 2,909% from the 2020 level, according to the US research. If 100% of vehicles have been electrified by 2025, then the growth for lithium more than doubles to reach 7,513%.

In terms of quantities of lithium that will be required, the team estimates that if all vehicles are electric by 2050, then the annual demand would increase from 747t in 2010 to 2.2m t.

For nickel, the global requirement ranges from 2m t, if 40% of vehicles are electric, to 5.2m t where the total is 100%. A similar order of magnitude will apply to both cobalt and manganese, says the research, with annual demand rising from 0.3 to 0.8m t, and 0.2 to 0.5m t, respectively.

The study notes that the electrification of heavy-duty vehicles will require larger quantities of critical metals than lighter vehicles like cars and vans. While heavy-duty vehicles only account for between four and 11% of the total vehicle park in some countries, battery-related critical metals for heavy-duty vehicles will account for some 62% of total demand over the period.

Another critical factor is that most of these critical metals are sourced from potentially politically unstable nations, such as Congo, according to the World Bank. As You emphasises: ‘The unstable supplies of critical metals and minerals can exacerbate supply risks under surging demand.’

One answer is to dramatically improve the recycling of these critical metals, through the establishment of a major battery recycling programme to produce a closed cycle supply chain.

The electrical infrastructure is also likely to be a rate determining factor in the drive for vehicle electrification. Recent articles in the media in both the US and the US have emphasised the need for the faster establishment of functioning vehicle charging stations.

With the Biden administration’s recent proposals for an acceleration in vehicle electrification and the UK’s tough targets for the banning of fossil fuel vehicles, questions are beginning to be asked about the viability of too rapid a change; even in the EU, replacement targets are being questioned. Italy, Poland and Germany have recently combined to secure concessions so that after 2035 it will still be legal to sell internal combustion powered vehicles that can use so-called electro fuels (e-fuels).

No such concession appears to have been sought from the UK government, but a recent study by EY/Eurelectric highlighted the potential concerns around what may become an ill-considered headlong rush into vehicle electrification. As well as a lack of vehicle charging stations, there is likely to be a major impact on another part of national infrastructure: electricity grids, many of which, although currently considered overstretched are likely to come under greatly increased pressure in the very near future.

All this looks a very risky business, unless, of course, alternatives like fuel cells, using hydrogen produced by renewable electricity, are given the attention they rightfully deserve. But then a proper strategy for hydrogen production will need to be an essential part of future energy policy.

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