Energy Security Fears Rise Anew in Shift to Clean Energy
As clean energy technology gains ground, a new energy security concern is taking center stage. Where once national security officials watched oil supplies, they are now tracking the production of minerals such as cobalt, indium, and neodymium used in the manufacturing of batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines.
For decades, a civil war in Northern Africa or a terrorist attack in the Middle East would send shudders through a US economy dependent on the daily flow of millions of barrels of oil from abroad.
But, as clean energy technology gains ground, a new energy security concern is taking center stage. Where once national security officials watched oil supplies, they are now tracking the production of minerals such as cobalt, indium, and neodymium used in the manufacturing of batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines.
With mining networks stretching across Africa, Asia, and South America, China has come to dominate the extraction and processing of those materials over the past 2 decades. And with President Joe Biden and most of the world’s leaders pressing to shift from fossil fuels to clean technologies to combat climate change, the security of that supply chain is coming under increasing scrutiny.
“It’s something we need to give serious thought to. We’re going to be creating lots of new dependencies and, unlike oil, we haven’t given thought on how to manage and mitigate the risk,” said Mark Finley, a former CIA analyst and now a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “The US and its allies have spent 50 years thinking about energy security around oil and what to do about it, creating policies, protocols, and treaties. There’s nothing like that for other forms of energy.”
The issue is starting to gain attention in Washington, as Democrats and Republicans question how the United States plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions while also maintaining energy security.
In recent years, energy security had become less of a national concern as the hydraulic fracturing boom opened oil and natural gas deposits long though too difficult and costly to extract. But with Biden looking to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels, Congress is beginning to take steps to strengthen the nation’s hold over the clean energy supply chain.
Last summer, Democrats and Republicans came together to include language in a COVID-19 relief bill that would speed the surveying of critical mineral deposits such as lithium within the United States, as well as permitting of mining projects to extract them. The Biden administration is working with allies such as Australia and India to diversify the supply chain of critical minerals while directing researchers to develop synthetic alternatives to minerals such as cobalt and neodymium.
The administration is also seeking to increase recycling of materials from spent batteries and other sources.
At a recent Senate hearing, Principal Deputy Assistant Energy Secretary Kelly Speakes-Backman said that, to meet forecast demand for electric vehicles, the United States will need more than 100 battery factories by 2035, with enough mineral mining and processing operations to supply them.