Material Energy Nexus symposium looks to green energy revolution
The Yale School of the Environment’s “Material Energy Nexus” symposium brought together researchers, policymakers and industry leaders to discuss the future of sustainable energy.
The Yale School of the Environment hosted its “Material Energy Nexus” event last Wednesday, Feb. 22.
Throughout the evening, keynote speakers, industry directors and researchers presented their thoughts on current challenges to the green energy revolution. Their most pressing concerns of the night involved the supply of rare earth minerals — and the rapid upscaling of the mining industry — that would be needed to accommodate the mass production of sustainable technologies.
“A key takeaway from these talks is just the trade-offs,” Reed Miller, post-doctoral researcher at the Yale School of the Environment, told the News. “If we want to achieve sustainability objectives, something has to give. There’s not a perfect solution in which no environmental harm will be done.”
The keynote speakers at the event Thomas Graedel, professor at the Yale School of the Environment and Saleem Ali, ENV ’96, professor at the University of Delaware suggested that the path to a greener future will have to be paved in lithium and cobalt. Ali explained the importance of shoring up enough lithium to sustain the production for electric vehicles and that solar-panels would be critical. Most, if not all, green energy sources rely on lithium-ion batteries for energy storage.
But this reliance on metals often results in what Ali termed a “green paradox of criticality.” Ali noted that mineral mining — like any form of resource extraction — was energy-intensive and environmentally destructive, running counter to our conventional environmental understandings of responsible “land use” and “environmental pollution.”
Mining efforts have been further complicated by geopolitical tensions and longstanding media mis-portrayals. The term “rare-earth metals” is something of a misnomer, explained Ali, who cited frequent media coverage from both sides of the aisle that tended to exaggerate the scale of mining’s ecological and social disturbances.
“The challenge I see is the mixed messaging that we’re getting, which is likely to lead to an impasse,” Ali said.
Ali also recognized that governments must make politically fraught decisions in relying on rare-earth metal sources such as China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but also stressed that the location of minerals was determined by geology. Turning to political allies that might not have as rich a supply of minerals — a tactic dubbed “friendshoring”— would decrease the energy efficiency of resource extraction and “disproportionately impact poorer countries” by denying them potential economic opportunities.
Any wide-scale energy transition, however, will have to choose between the lesser of two evils — which means expanding the mining industries and, in many cases, making use of the resources within the country. Sarah Stewart, panelist and CEO of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, described US dependence on foreign countries for metal imports as a “chokepoint crisis waiting to happen.”
“I feel like this conversation around the materials needed for the energy transition is [one] that is not had enough,” said Sarah Gledhill ’23 ENV.
After the keynote address, panelists opened up about advancements in battery technologies, industrial expansion, and the possibility of creating a rare-metal circular economy. Though full end-of-life battery recycling still lies five to six years away, companies such as Lithion Recycling have started recovering metals such as lithium and cobalt from “200,000 batteries” each year, noted Abigail Hunter, Quebec government affairs officer.
Michael Holloman, panelist and commercial board director of Missouri Cobalt, explained that the cobalt mining company had recently opened a processing facility that was achieving “95-plus percent recoveries” of nickel, cobalt, and copper.
“Policy plays a big role,” Jesse Duran, sustainability analyst for Element Fleet Management, told the News. He had attended the event for insight into the electric vehicle market. “We have seen in all the areas that we operate, [that] once the US was … pushing for electric vehicles, … it pushed so many other countries into … making more electric vehicles and bringing the production closer to here.”
While no energy revolution will be free from environmental consequences, governments can make measures to ensure that a transition will pass as smoothly and fairly as possible.
One such strategy, Hunter said, could include streamlining local production processes. She cited efforts by the Quebec government to situate battery manufacturers atop brownfield sites occupied by former aluminum mining facilities. Allowing different stages of production to “work off of each other” would create smaller energy footprints by minimizing transport, she explained.
Under Quebec’s jurisdiction, mining companies must also meet with the local community prior to permitting and pay upfront the full cost of reparations for treating the land. Government, business officials, and community leaders are “involved every step of the way” in the hopes of maintaining high standards without discouraging potential business, said Hunter.
Stewart acknowledged that the mining industry can learn from the lessons of the fossil fuel wave to avoid exploitative practices and create more “virtuous supply chains.” According to Stewart, the mining industry stands ready to “[put] the safeguards in place” and seize the “moment of opportunity […] towards decarbonization.”
“The biggest takeaway I have from this is how […] we have to take a systems wide approach,” said Maggie Thompson ’23 ENV as she reflected on the event. “I think that […] there are going to be things that we have to give up in order to have sustainability be a fundamental part of our society.”
As of 2020, Australia, Latin America, and China accounted for 98 percent of global lithium mining.