The Energy Metals Conundrum


The seemingly unending debates about if sustainable power could ever become economic are over.

And the greenies won.

Wind and solar power generation are now able to compete with just about any other form of power generation. In some cases, offshore wind delivers power for a lower cost than any other option, and with no recurring fuel costs.

Leaving the massive difference in emissions out of the equation, let’s focus on the economic and strategic advantages that sustainable power create for nations that embrace it on scale.

My Power is Free

Think about two businesses. If one had to pay for power, and the other didn’t, which one would have the economic advantage?

This is probably the line of thinking that China is following as they curb their use of coal as quickly as possible, and look for other ways of fueling automobiles. While the snide jokes that electric cars in China are really just coal powered autos are basically true for the moment, in a decade, that isn’t likely to be the case.

Over the last few years China went from having little solar generation in it’s national mix, to becoming the worlds largest manufacturer of solar technology, and the largest producer of solar power.

It took less than a decade, and they show no signs of slowing down.

It isn’t hard to understand why, unlike the USA, who was once oil rich, or the UK, who was coal rich, China is looking for longer term solutions because it is an energy-poor country. Sure, they do have some coal deposits, but when they burn it on the scale they need, the air turns black and people start to have major health problems.

While the West grapples with understanding how China uses a mix of a planned and market economy, China is rapidly becoming the world’s largest market for just about anything.

Especially innovation.

But The Metal?

The mining industry has a bad rap in green circles.

Everyone wants to be 100% wind and solar, but no one realizes the sheer amount of copper, lithium, cobalt and other elements that transition will entail.

Cobalt has been a afterthought for most industries, as there haven’t been shortages since the last world war, and the children that mine it in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) don’t have much of a voice in the world.

At least 60% of the cobalt that is produced comes from the DRC, and there is no way to know if it is coming from mines that employ some of the worst labor practices outside of the Bangladeshi garment industry.

Needless to say, hole-in-the-ground mines that are operating in a war zone and staffed by 9 year olds isn’t a scaleable business model, especially given the sheer amount of cobalt we are going to have to come up with for Electric Vehicles to displace petrol power.

This is basically the case for all of the metals that will allow us to move away from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, many people in the green community simply don’t understand the reality of how our society exists.

Getting Real

The Mines and Money convention in London is an unabashedly capitalist event. This past year’s drew heavy protests, ending in a candlelight vigil for goodness knows what hopelessly naive worldview they support.

People don’t understand that in order for petrol and coal the be relegated to the past, the world’s biggest miners are going to have to expand production across a range of elements.

Will there be pollution?

Yes.

And will there be environmental destruction?

Also yes.

Strip mining isn’t pretty, and smelters create pollution.

Welcome to reality.

But I would imagine that if the candleholding protesters at Mines and Money were polled, they would have supported a company like Rio Tinto or Glencore developing new cobalt mines, over, say, a Central African Warlord who shoots the disobedient child laborers with an AK-47.

Because that is our choice.

If we want there to be a sustainable power revolution, there will need to be a lot more metal. And it has to come from somewhere.

I feel better about Rio Tinto all the time, given the only realistic alternatives that exist.

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