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Concerted efforts needed to secure key resources for low-carbon future

New SEI studies on biomass, scarce metals and water, produced as part of a partnership with the business initiative 3C (Combat Climate Change), show supply constraints could slow deployment of green energy technologies by 2035 – but business and policy choices can reduce these risks.
Marion Davis / Published on 27 March 2012

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Solar Thermal test facility in Albuquerque

The National Solar Thermal Test Facility at Sandia National Laboratories, in Albuquerque, NM, USA. / Flickr-NNSA

NewsLow-carbon technologies – solar, wind, hydroelectric and geothermal power, biofuels, electric and hybrid vehicles – are likely to play key roles in efforts to avoid dangerous levels of climate change. But to make a significant impact, they need to be deployed on a large scale. And even if economic and political obstacles can be removed, there is growing concern that key resources needed for these technologies are just too limited.

Aiming to gauge the extent of the problem, SEI researchers in the U.S. and U.K. estimated demand for these resources under different scenarios. In three new reports and accompanying policy briefs, they outline their findings and identify possible solutions involving technology, public policy and business strategies.

Biomass in the Aberdares / Global Utmaning

The biomass study explored four scenarios differentiated by their relative focus on climate or agriculture and food security: a “Single Bottom Line” in which relatively unconstrained markets determine what technologies are developed and deployed; “Meeting the Climate Challenge”, focused entirely on curbing emissions; “Feeding the Planet”, focused on increasing food production; and a “Sustainability Transition” that uses biomass not only for food and energy, but also, increasingly, as industrial feedstock.

The analysis shows that no path is perfect, and all but “Feeding the Planet” would increase total agricultural land use, but a “Sustainability Transition” would yield the greatest benefits for both climate and agricultural productivity. It could spur innovation, the authors note: “If we encourage the use of bio-materials, then entrepreneurs and businesses can take this on as a challenge, and thrive on it.”

Solar cells using Tellurium / Flickr US Department of energy solar decathlon

The metals study estimated future supply and demand for five metals – cobalt, lithium, neodymium, indium and tellurium – under three energy scenarios and three global minerals market scenarios. It found a severe risk of medium- and long-term cumulative deficits of indium and tellurium, a moderate risk of medium-term and severe risk of long-term deficits of neodymium, and a limited risk of long-term deficits of cobalt and lithium.

Policy initiatives can help address the challenges identified in our analysis and provide incentives for recycling, technology and materials substitution, and other effective responses, the authors note. But governments may not be paying enough attention to scarcity, focusing only on technological and environmental challenges, and some policies that do address scarcity, such as trade barriers and hoarding, could actually exacerbate problems, the study warns.

Geothermal power plant in Iceland / Flicks Scott Ableman

The water study, meanwhile, notes that some low-carbon electricity sources, such as solar thermal and geothermal, use so much water that their large-scale implementation might not be viable in the growing share of the world where water supplies are constrained or uncertain.

SEI researchers developed a case study for water use for electricity generation in California, focusing on the water and emissions implications of the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS). They found that under the RPS, which would boost the share of renewable electricity from 25 to 34 per cent by 2020, emissions and water withdrawals would be lower than under business as usual, but water consumption (the water that is not reused or returned to the source) would increase.

But adjustments to California’s RPS could significantly reduce water demand. A scenario the authors called RPS+Technology, using more photovoltaics and less solar thermal power, and incrementally switching once-through to wet-recirculating and dry-cooling systems, reduced both water withdrawals and consumption. Yet there are trade-offs: Some of the adjustments would reduce plant efficiency, offsetting some of the emission reductions; adding carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to some natural-gas plants could more than make up the difference, but that technology, in turn, would require more water.

“It is clear that there are no easy solutions to any of these problems,” says Annika Varnäs, the Stockholm-based SEI research fellow who coordinates SEI’s research programme with the 3C initiative. “Competing demands for resources, political and economic factors, and sustainability concern all and pose daunting challenges. However, these studies also show that both businesses and governments can take significant steps to address these challenges and increase the likelihood that low-carbon technologies can be successfully deployed around the world.”

“Companies are becoming increasingly aware of the many challenges inherent in the transition to a low-carbon economy, and the 3C companies hope that resource scarcity can remain on the agenda,” adds 3C Coordinator Jesse Fahnestock. “These studies show that being proactive and coordinated on resource management is going to be an important part of overhauling the energy system.”

Learn more about the 3C initiative or read the policy briefs on biomass, metals and water»

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