Energy transition: Researchers warn of new raw material dependencies

Energy transition: Researchers warn of new raw material dependencies

The energy transition can bring with it new, delicate dependencies that result from the necessary imports of energy sources and raw materials. A research team from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW) writes in a study commissioned by Science platform for climate protection. To do this, it looked at the situation for 17 commodities.

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“Delivery failures could not be offset to any significant extent by imports from other countries, either in the short or long term,” writes the IfW. Crises in recent years have highlighted the danger that dependence on individual suppliers and sensitive supply chains could delay the energy transition. In order to prevent this, substitutes should be found, recycling made possible and promoted, new sources of supply opened up and warehouses for critical raw materials set up.

The Kiel researchers classify platinum, palladium and rhodium, which are required for fuel cells, as “particularly critical” raw materials. Their production is mainly concentrated in Russia and South Africa. There are no deposits in Europe, and the possibilities of other import routes are very limited. The recycling rates for these metals are already very high, and the options for replacing them are very limited given the current state of the art. “In addition, the demand for these raw materials is expected to increase very sharply in the future, which is likely to increase their scarcity even further,” says the Study “Resilience of Germany’s long-term strategy for climate protection” (PDF).

The IfW also considers the import situation for boron, which is required for wind turbines, photovoltaics and electric motors, to be particularly critical. Boron products are mainly imported from Turkey, while high-quality pure boron is mainly sourced from the USA. Russia and China hardly played a role as suppliers here.

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The import dependency of gallium, germanium, graphite, indium, cobalt, lithium, magnesium, niobium, rare earths, strontium and titanium is assessed as “critical” in the study. At the moment, Germans are getting these raw materials from a few, often autocratically governed countries like China. But there is a wider range of countries with deposits of such raw materials. These could come into play due to the expected high demand. “There are also possibilities for import substitution through the increased exploitation of European deposits, increased recycling or substitution with other materials,” writes the IfW.

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Fluorine and silicon are classified as less critical raw materials. The supplier structure of German imports is comparatively highly diversified, and the geopolitical risks of the supplier countries are moderate overall.

However, the IfW does not just focus on raw materials. “Many preliminary and end products that are required for energy technologies are increasingly being manufactured in a few countries and exported to Germany,” explains Ortwin Renn, a member of the steering committee of the Climate Protection Science Platform. “Here we are more than 95 percent dependent on one country for the wafers required for photovoltaic systems.”

“We should draw the right conclusions from the corona pandemic and the Russian war of aggression. Diversification, circular economy and international cooperation are key elements of a resilient supply of raw materials,” says Karen Pittel from the steering committee. “The danger of raw material and energy trade disputes, in which the economically stronger asserts its interests, is increasing and will continue to endanger the transformation process in the future,” adds Sabine Schlacke, co-chair of the steering committee.

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