Climate policymaking often seems to be little more than changing a label on a green coloured arrow in a PowerPoint slide from “electric” to “hydrogen”. Of course, oil companies will endorse huge commitments based on superficial briefings. Their investors are encouraging their transformation into cost-plus green energy utilities.
Political debates and investor allocations have been neglecting the long lead times required for the metals and metallurgical techniques needed for electric or hydrogen economies. Any decarbonisation goals must take into account the minimum of seven to 10 years required for developing the new mines we will need.
There is a great deal of attention devoted to the increased efficiency of solar panels and wind turbines. Mine productivity, though, is steadily going down as ore grades decline for critical metals such as copper and nickel. The economic effect of lower ore grades has been offset for the past couple of decades by a few innovations such as much larger mining trucks, but productivity improvements in mining are petering out. There are fewer new, rich metals deposits being discovered, and those that are found tend to be in politically and socially unstable places.
In the coming year, zero net carbon goals will finally be getting the official spending in Europe and America that activists have been demanding. It is time for those to include substantial and timely commitments to mining development.
Copper, nickel, cobalt, chromium and other critical minerals will be required in much larger quantities for decarbonisation, and that means making explicit choices about the regulatory and capital markets support required. In advance. For example, I agree with the environmentalists who believe the proposed giant Pebble copper mine in Alaska poses too much of a threat to the local salmon fishery and fresh water supply.
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So we should settle on another source for the copper we will need for electrification to offset the Pebble Mine cancellation. If the alternative copper source is near more water, we have to find ways to somehow safely dispose of dangerous tailings. If the copper is in a desert, we need to bring in large amounts of water, safely, to process the ore.
If the metal grades are low compared with competing mines in politically insecure places, we need to place orders at higher prices than we might pay in an ideal world. And we need to start to develop those mines at least seven years before we need the metal they will produce.
Easy to list. Politically difficult, if not, for the moment, impossible.
For Europeans, the energy transformations will almost certainly require a much larger industrial and social spending commitment to Africa. Creating a coherent policy for this among squeamish social democrats and heavy-handed descendants of colonialists will not be easy.
There is a lot of political support for the hydrogen economy. This enthusiasm has, generally, not been accompanied by an appreciation of how much new, and highly engineered, metal it would require. Hydrogen is not just a non-polluting gas that leaves only water vapour in its wake. It is a hard-to-handle molecule which is not very forgiving of the weaknesses of our legacy metal infrastructure.
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At low pressures, hydrogen “embrittles” metals such as steel in ways we are still discovering after a century and a half of research. At higher temperatures and pressures, hydrogen “attacks” steel. The tiny atoms or ions of hydrogen find their way through seals and welds. To keep the hydrogen pipelines pressurised requires several more compressor stages than natural gas. And shifting ground or earthquakes could have more serious effects on that embrittled steel pipeline.
Also, unless lab-scale alternative fuel cell catalysts can be rapidly scaled up to a massive industry, the hydrogen economy will be more dependent on platinum from southern Africa than the oil industry ever was on the Gulf deposits. Even without platinum dependence, we will need to compress several generations’ worth of additions to our metal infrastructure into a few years.
Whether zero net carbon is set for 2035, 2050, or some other ambitious goal, the PowerPoint assumptions that the metal needed will be available when required are not based in reality. If you do not want to be subject to the will and pricing of a handful of mining companies, start preparations now.