Some say that it is a problem that we import metals to build wind turbines, solar plants and batteries. Some even claim it is a problem as big as when you depend on continuous import coal, oil, fossil gas and uranium for our energy supply.
For two reasons this is not correct.
First, it is a crucial difference that if the import of uranium, coal, oil and gas stops, the production of electricity and heat from the using these fuels has to stop. If the import of metals to make wind turbines, batteries, electric cars and solar cells ceases, the production of electricity from all existing power plants continues, the electric cars can be driven, be re-charged and driven again. For the supply security of the energy system, this is a decisive difference.
Second, the metals are not consumed when they are used to make new electrical equipment. The metals from old wind power plants can be used to produce new wind power plants.
When the energy is extracted from fossil hydrocarbons, the chemical energy is consumed and the carbon dioxide produced becomes a climate risk. When uranium's nuclei are split to extract its energy, fission products are formed that have less energy, and that are also harmful for a long time to come.
The resource value of metals can be explained further: Ore is mined in mines, and then refined into pure metals that are built into devices. That is a completely different process. Energy is added to concentrate the scattered metal atoms in the ore into a piece of pure metal. That investment is not lost when the metals are built into products. This is why scrap metal can have a value higher than ore, explaining why it is often profitable to utilize the content of old machinery and reuse the metals.
While carbon dioxide and nuclear waste are a cost to the owner, scrap wind turbines may be an asset.
Most of all the copper that has been mined over thousands of years in all the world's mines is still in use.
But not all ways of using metals make them recyclable. Copper used in biocides to kill harmful organisms in agriculture is not recycled. Small particles of silver used to keep clothes from smelling are also lost.
Metals in generators, and motors, their magnets, and batteries, however, can be recycled and used again. How easy and profitable it is depends on how much the engineers thought about recycling when designing the products.
Therefore, it is important that the designers think about how the products will be handled in the next generation. One battery manufacturer even started to operate a facility for recycling at the same time as manufacturing its first battery cells.
In the coming years, it will be necessary to extract new metals on a large scale. This is simply because there aren't that many solar cells, wind turbines and batteries to recycle metals out of. Many millions of tons of metals must first be moved from the Earth's crust into our technological systems. For this, many new mines are required.
Ores are found in many parts of the world. But mines are not established everywhere.
China saw this development a decade ago and is well prepared. The lateness of the old industrialized countries is a challenge. But it is not as big as some imagine. The metals needed to build a cheap, sustainable energy system can be found in many places. New mines will be needed for a couple of decades to build the new technological systems that replace those that consumes uranium and fossil fuels. They are needed quickly. The US president has said he will use the ”defense production act” to succeed. The EU and Japan therefore faces stiff competition from both China and the United States in this revolutionary industrial development.
But to take on this competition is important. It is an economically beneficial development that radically decrease the future dependence on imports to keep the energy system working.