Just how do we supply all these clean metals?


Metals demand in the clean energy transition may call for substitution between materials, while lithium supplies may need to increase seven-fold by 2030, according to McKinsey & Company.

A joint article from the North American management consulting firm outlined the sheer materials intensity of low-carbon technologies like solar and wind power, compared to the emissions intensity of today’s high-carbon technologies like coal-fired and gas-fired power.

“For example, generating one terawatt-hour of electricity from solar and wind could consume, respectively, 300 per cent and 200 per cent more metals than generating the same number of terawatt-hours from a gas-fired power plant,” McKinsey & Company stated.

“While still drastically reducing the emissions intensity of the sector—even when accounting for the emissions related to the materials production.”

While the materials intensity may startle some, the reduction in emissions despite it will come as positive news for the raft of new solar installations across Australia’s mining industry.

Most recently, CIMIC Group’s UGL was contracted for works at the Mica Creek solar farm project in Mount Isa, significantly benefitting Glencore subsidiary Mount Isa Mines (MIM).

In December, Alinta Energy began switched on the Chichester Hub solar farm for Fortescue Metals Group in Western Australia.

Such uptake in clean energy technologies will not be smooth sailing, however, according to McKinsey.

“The trajectory toward materials availability will not be a linear one,” the firm stated.

“We expect materials shortages, price fly-ups, and, given the inability of supply to react quickly, the need for technological innovation and substitution of certain metals.”

This substitution of materials is more likely to be seen in less common materials, McKinsey continued, such as tellurium or platinum, as the popularity of lithium allows for greater investment, development and production.

Overall, the supply and demand of materials for clean energy technologies is likely to be a predictable rollercoaster, “as supply will always equal demand,” according to McKinsey.

Whether the high demand and increased prices lead to increased supply or the substitution of materials, McKinsey predicts that the clean energy transition will find a way, but admits, however, that the resulting picture will be near impossible to forecast.

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