The global coronavirus pandemic could present a major issue for electric cars and clean energy by restricting supplies of materials needed for batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned in a report Wednesday.
The supply of needed minerals—such as the lithium, cobalt, and nickel used in batteries, and copper for wiring—could tighten as restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus hinder mining operations, the IEA said.
An electric car uses five times as much minerals as an internal-combustion car, and an onshore wind plant requires eight times as much minerals as a gas-fired power plant of the same capacity, the agency said.
Concerns over mineral supplies for electric-car batteries existed before the pandemic, as some supply is concentrated in a handful of countries. In addition, China accounts for 50% to 70% of global lithium and cobalt refining capacity, according to the IEA.
"Geopolitical concerns will not fade away as electric vehicles replace conventional cars," the agency said, indicating that these dynamics could create a clean-energy version of the geopolitical strife over the Middle Eastern oil supply.
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Lithium prices have been on a downward trajectory since last year, mostly because of new mines. There's also been a surge of interest in creating more lithium supply in the United States.
Another crucial mineral for electric-car batteries is cobalt, which is mostly found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The country's willingness to exploit its monopoly by upping prices, and its poor human rights record, have made cobalt the subject of many damning media reports on battery manufacturing.
The IEA estimated that 20% of cobalt production in the DRC is from so-called "artisanal" mining, done with rudimentary tools and no concern for safety. Processing also involves harmful chemicals and produces "high volumes of solid waste and wastewater, which are not always appropriately handled," the agency said.
Most automakers at this point have made some level of commitment to the ethical sourcing of minerals. Drive Sustainability, a partnership that aims to address human rights issues in sourcing raw materials, counts BMW, Daimler (parent of Mercedes-Benz), Ford, Honda, Jaguar Land Rover, Toyota Motor Europe, and Volkswagen as members.
Several companies, including Volvo, have also turned to blockchain computing as a way to help verify the sourcing of materials such as cobalt.