Tag Archives: electric cars

The Plight of Electric Cars: Cobalt Batteries and Mining

About 60% of the world’s cobalt is found in Congo, scattered across the copperbelt that stretches east into Zambia. The people of Kawama, Gongo grumble that too much land has been sold to mining firms. “We used to dig freely,” says Gerard Kaumba, a miner. “But now the government has sold all the hills.” There are still some sites where miners can turn up and dig, but they have to sell to whoever owns the concession. A sweltering day’s work might earn you $7. Many people have found they can make more at night, pilfering cobalt from industrial mines.

Glencore, a commodities giant with two mines in Congo, reckons that some 2,000 people sneak into its pits every day. Other companies have even more robbers to contend with. In 2019 Congolese soldiers chased thieves out of a mine owned by China Molybdenum where, it was reckoned, 10,000-odd people were then illegally digging. Sneaking into Glencore’s mines is hardest, says a Kawaman, as its guards do not collude with thieves—and often chase them away with dogs.

Congo’s industrial miners are not all angels.  Gécamines, the state-owned company, has enriched crooked politicians for half a century. Global Witness, a watchdog based in London, says Congo’s treasury lost $750m of mining revenues to graft between 2013 and 2015. ENRC, which has mines in Congo, has faced allegations of corruption and an investigation by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (it denies wrongdoing). So has Glencore, which has worked with Dan Gertler, an Israeli billionaire. Mr Gertler, a close friend of a former Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, is under American sanctions… 

While big firms rake in millions, many of the little guys languish in jail. The prison in Kolwezi, the largest city in the mining region, is crammed with men caught stealing copper and cobalt. More than a hundred inmates occupy one stinking room, sitting in rows on the ground, each wedged between another’s legs. Prissoners are allowed to use the toilet only once a day, so they often urinate in their clothes

Excerpt from Cobalt blues: In Congo the little guys are jailed for stealing minerals. Economist, Oct. 17, 2020

An Impossible Made Possible: the Green Energy Revolution

Since the cost of renewable energy can now be competitive with fossil fuels. Government, corporate and consumer interests finally seem to be aligning.  The stock market has noticed. After years of underperformance, indexes that track clean-energy stocks bottomed out in late 2018. The S&P Global Clean Energy index, which covers 30 big utilities and green-technology stocks, is now up 37% over two years, including dividends, compared with 18% for the S&P 500.

This year’s Covid crisis will delay some renewable projects, but could speed up the energy transition in other ways. Alternative-energy spending has held up much better than spending on oil and gas. Globally, clean-energy investment is now expected to account for half of total investment in the entire energy sector this year, according to UBS.  Moreover, the crisis has pushed governments to spend money, including on renewable technologies. The massive stimulus plan announced by the European Union last month is decidedly green. The German government increased electric-car subsidies as part of its pandemic-related stimulus package rather than rolling out a 2009-style “cash-for-clunkers” program. China’s plans include clean-energy incentives, too.

Solar and wind are now mature technologies that provide predictable long-term returns. Big lithium-ion batteries, such as those that power Teslas, are industrializing rapidly. More speculatively, hydrogen is a promising green fuel for hard-to-decarbonize sectors such as long-haul transport, aviation, steel and cement.  Many big companies—the likes of Royal Dutch Shell, Air Liquide and Toyota —have green initiatives worth many hundreds of millions of dollars. They are, however, a relatively small part of these large businesses, some of whose other assets may be rendered obsolete by the energy transition… Early-stage electric-truck maker Nikola jumped on its market debut this month to a valuation at one point exceeding that of Ford.

Investors might be better off looking at the established specialists in between. Vestas is the world’s leading manufacturer of wind turbines. Orsted, another Danish company, has made the transition from oil-and-gas producer to wind-energy supplier and aspires to be the first green-energy supermajor. More speculatively, Canadian company Ballard has three decades of experience making hydrogen fuel cells.

Rochelle Toplensky, Green Energy Is Finally Going Mainstream, WSJ, June 24, 2020

Human and Environmental Costs of Low-Carbon Technologies

Substantial amounts of raw materials will be required to build new low-carbon energy devices and infrastructure.  Such materials include cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and rare earth elements (REEs)—needed for technologies such as solar photovoltaics, batteries, electric vehicle (EV) motors, wind turbines, fuel cells, and nuclear reactors…  A majority of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country struggling to recover from years of armed conflict…Owing to a lack of preventative strategies and measures such as drilling with water and proper exhaust ventilation, many cobalt miners have extremely high levels of toxic metals in their body and are at risk of developing respiratory illness, heart disease, or cancer.

In addition, mining frequently results in severe environmental impacts and community dislocation. Moreover, metal production itself is energy intensive and difficult to decarbonize. Mining for copper,and mining for lithium has been criticized in Chile for depleting local groundwater resources across the Atacama Desert, destroying fragile ecosystems, and converting meadows and lagoons into salt flats. The extraction, crushing, refining, and processing of cadmium can pose risks such as groundwater or food contamination or worker exposure to hazardous chemicals. REE extraction in China has resulted  threatens rural groundwater aquifers as well as rivers and streams.

Although large-scale mining is often economically efficient, it has limited employment potential, only set to worsen with the recent arrival of fully automated mines. Even where there is relative political stability and stricter regulatory regimes in place, there can still be serious environmental failures, as exemplified by the recent global rise in dam failures at settling ponds for mine tailings. The level of distrust of extractive industries has even led to countrywide moratoria on all new mining projects, such as in El Salvador and the Philippines.

Traditional labor-intensive mechanisms of mining that involve less mechanization are called artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). Although ASM is not immune from poor governance or environmental harm, it provides livelihood potential for at least 40 million people worldwide…. It is also usually more strongly embedded in local and national economies than foreign-owned, large-scale mining, with a greater level of value retained and distributed within the country. Diversifying mineral supply chains to allow for greater coexistence of small- and large-scale operations is needed. Yet, efforts to incorporate artisanal miners into the formal economy have often resulted in a scarcity of permits awarded, exorbitant costs for miners to legalize their operations, and extremely lengthy and bureaucratic processes for registration….There needs to be a focus on policies that recognize ASM’s livelihood potential in areas of extreme poverty. The recent decision of the London Metals Exchange to have a policy of “nondiscrimination” toward ASM is a positive sign in this regard.

A great deal of attention has focused on fostering transparency and accountability of mineral mining by means of voluntary traceability or even “ethical minerals” schemes. International groups, including Amnesty International, the United Nations, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have all called on mining companies to ensure that supply chains are not sourced from mines that involve illegal labor and/or child labor.

Traceability schemes, however, may be impossible to fully enforce in practice and could, in the extreme, merely become an exercise in public relations rather than improved governance and outcomes for miners…. Paramount among these is an acknowledgment that traceability schemes offer a largely technical solution to profoundly political problems and that these political issues cannot be circumvented or ignored if meaningful solutions for workers are to be found. Traceability schemes ultimately will have value if the market and consumers trust their authenticity and there are few potential opportunities for leakage in the system…

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a framework that stipulates that producers are responsible for the entire lifespan of a product, including at the end of its usefulness. EPR would, in particular, shift responsibility for collecting the valuable resource streams and materials inside used electronics from users or waste managers to the companies that produce the devices. EPR holds producers responsible for their products at the end of their useful life and encourages durability, extended product lifetimes, and designs that are easy to reuse, repair, or recover materials from. A successful EPR program known as PV Cycle has been in place in Europe for photovoltaics for about a decade and has helped drive a new market in used photovoltaics that has seen 30,000 metric tons of material recycled.

Benjamin K. Sovacool et al., Sustainable minerals and metals for a low-carbon future, Science, Jan. 3, 2020

The Scramble for Lithium

SQM, Chile’s biggest lithium producer [has]Its headquarters in the military district of Santiago bears no name. The man who for years ran the business, Julio Ponce, is the former son-in-law of the late dictator, Augusto Pinochet. He quit as chairman in 2015, during an investigation into SQM for alleged tax evasion. (The company is co-operating with the inquiry.) Last month it emerged that CITIC, a Chinese state-controlled firm, may bid for part of Mr Ponce’s controlling stake in SQM, as part of China’s bid to secure supplies of a vital raw material…

SQM is part of a global scramble to secure supplies of lithium by the world’s largest battery producers, and by end-users such as carmakers. That has made it the world’s hottest commodity. The price of 99%-pure lithium carbonate imported to China more than doubled in the two months to the end of December, to $13,000 a tonne…

The industry is fairly concentrated, which adds to the worry. Last year Albermarle, the world’s biggest lithium producer, bought Rockwood, owner of Chile’s second-biggest lithium deposit. It and three other companies—SQM, FMC of America and Tianqi—account for most of the world supply of lithium salts, according to Citigroup, a bank. What is more, a big lithium-brine project in Argentina, run by a joint venture of Orocobre, an Australian miner, and Toyota, Japan’s largest carmaker, is behind schedule. Though the Earth contains plenty of lithium, extracting it can be costly and time-consuming, so higher prices may not automatically stimulate a surge in supply.

Demand is also on the up. At the moment, the main lithium-ion battery-makers are Samsung and LG of South Korea, Panasonic and Sony of Japan, and ATL of Hong Kong. But China also has many battery-makers…Tesla Motors, an American maker of electric cars founded by Elon Musk, a tech tycoon, is also on the prowl. It is preparing this year to start production at its “Gigafactory” in Nevada, which it hopes will supply lithium-ion batteries for 500,000 cars a year within five years….[I]n August Bacanora, a Canadian firm, said it had signed a conditional agreement to supply Tesla with lithium hydroxide from a mine that it plans to develop in northern Mexico. Bacanora’s shares jumped on the news—though analysts noted that shipping fine white powder across the United States border would need careful handling.Bigger carmakers also have a growing appetite for lithium…

Another big source of demand may be for electricity storage. The holy grail of renewable electricity is batteries cheap and capacious enough to overcome the intermittency of solar and wind power—for example, to store enough power from solar panels to keep the lights on all night.

Excerpts from  An increasingly precious metal, Economist, January 16, 2016