For greater than a decade, the U.S. financial system has been shifting from high-carbon fuels to low- and zero-carbon fuels at a formidable price. General U.S. carbon emissions have fallen nearly 20% since their peak in 2007, as cleaner vitality sources grew to become cheaper and extra dependable than the previous mainstays of the facility grid — particularly coal.
However the subsequent section of the vitality transition will probably be more difficult.
Simply take into consideration all of the uncooked supplies it’ll take to hurry up the enlargement of renewable energy, vitality storage, electrical autos and plenty of, many different low-carbon applied sciences.
If we don’t have safe, reasonably priced and dependable entry to the constructing blocks of fresh vitality applied sciences, then we are able to’t have a clear vitality financial system. If that wasn’t apparent earlier than the pandemic — which turned international provide chains for every kind of primary items the wrong way up — it’s crystal clear now.
That’s why the addition of a brand new manufacturing line on the Kennecott copper mine, situated 30 miles southwest of Salt Lake Metropolis, is a extremely massive deal.
In early Could, the mine’s proprietor, Rio Tinto, began producing tellurium, a critically vital mineral for the manufacture of superior thin-film photo voltaic panels.
Tellurium is without doubt one of the rarest of the Earth’s uncommon components. It’s about eight occasions rarer than gold, and at this second, international manufacturing of tellurium is dominated by China, based on the U.S. Geological Survey.
For that reason, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox says the addition of tellurium manufacturing on the Kennecott mine is a matter of nationwide safety. On the opening of the ability, Cox even in contrast this new tellurium manufacturing functionality to the three squadrons of stealth fighter jets stationed at close by Hill Air Drive Base.
“I believe what we’re doing right this moment is simply as vital because the F-35s at Hill Air Drive Base for nationwide safety,” he stated.
Rio Tinto tasks the Kennecott mine will provide 20 tons of tellurium per yr, or roughly 4% of worldwide manufacturing, based on USGS estimates. After it’s refined by semiconductor producer 5N Plus, the tellurium will probably be utilized by First Photo voltaic to provide completed photo voltaic panels within the industrial Midwest.
Headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, First Photo voltaic is about to open its third manufacturing plant in Ohio, which the corporate says is “the most important absolutely vertically built-in photo voltaic manufacturing complicated exterior China.”
With out tellurium and different uncooked supplies, nevertheless, these photo voltaic factories in Ohio would grind to a halt. Subsequently, working with 5N Plus and First Photo voltaic “is a crucial step in the direction of securing a North American provide chain of essential minerals to help the clear vitality transition,” says Clayton Walker, chief working officer of Rio Tinto Copper.
Producing tellurium on the Kennecott mine isn’t nearly securing a home provide chain for clear vitality applied sciences, nevertheless. It’s additionally the most recent instance of “full worth mining,” an trade time period which means discovering methods to get totally different sorts of metals and different priceless supplies out of the identical mine.
Whereas copper is the first steel on the Kennecott mine, there are a number of others being produced there too, together with gold, silver and — in fact — tellurium.
However till now, it wasn’t economical to take away the tellurium from the copper-bearing ores, as a result of officers on the mine didn’t have a buyer to purchase and refine it. Now they do, due to current development and deliberate expansions in home photo voltaic manufacturing.
In addition to the financial upside, full worth mining additionally has main environmental advantages. When extra minerals are produced from the identical mine, there’s much less waste to handle and smaller floor impacts. Not solely that, the place mining waste already exists in tailings dams and different storage services, that waste could be reprocessed to unlock minerals which have change into extra priceless because of the vitality transition.
Simply as vital, adopting a full worth method to mining within the U.S. can scale back our imports of essential minerals, like tellurium, which might be largely produced abroad with fewer environmental safeguards than these we take without any consideration right here in North America.
To be clear: Securing a home provide chain for essential minerals and clear vitality applied sciences is not going to occur by itself.
After many years of discouraging funding within the U.S. mining sector, policymakers must discover methods to encourage new and expanded manufacturing of copper, tellurium, lithium, cobalt, nickel and all the opposite important substances for a carbon-neutral financial system.
That gained’t be simple, however it will likely be well worth the effort. Simply ask the Utah miners and Ohio photo voltaic staff who’re already exhibiting us the best way.
Simon Lomax is a visiting fellow with The Western Approach, a conservative nonprofit that seeks pro-market options to environmental challenges, and an editor-at-large with the Payne Institute for Public Coverage on the Colorado College of Mines. He’s a former local weather reporter for Bloomberg Information and a former congressional fellow with the American Political Science Affiliation.