The effort to decarbonize transportation, buildings, and industry by electrifying everything starts with clean electric power, and this is an important part of managing asset earth, our pale blue dot.
The scale of the changes that are needed to decarbonize enough to meet the Paris Accord goals is described in 2021 IEA (International Energy Agency) reports on “The Global Energy Review” and “The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions”.
Like any asset that needs maintenance planet earth needs adjustments to ensure it operates efficiently to provide a sustainable environment for human and other life. A key part of any asset management program is the use of digital twin models to show where maintenance needs to be prioritized. Digital twin models are never perfect but they are essential to prioritize the actions and time scales needed for successful outcomes.
Modern humans have explored our planet-finding ways to use available resources. As we became successful enough to explore space, it is interesting that every astronaut that viewed our planet from space sees their wonderful home as a uniquely hospitable place.
Asset Management Recommendations for Planet Earth Suggest Big Changes in Mining Earth's Minerals
The IEA reports show that decarbonization of our energy systems by electrifying everything will require considerable effort to expand mining of certain metals and reducing the mining of carbon resources that increase carbon emissions into the atmosphere. At least for the short term, the main new sources of electric power will come from SWB (Solar, Wind, and Batteries). According to IEA figures, nuclear power declined by 4% in 2020, but there is some mild projected growth in 2021 as existing plant construction is completed and plants in Japan are restarted. Of course, our planet earth did come with a significant inventory of fission resources: Uranium 235, Uranium 238, and Thorium 232 not to mention hydrogen in the event we ever figure out a practical fusion reactor. It may be that generation IV or small modular nuclear reactors get started eventually, although the Thorium Fuel cycle using LFTR technology may emerge as a safer, more efficient (much less unburned fuel) technology with much less nuclear rad waste. Such a nuclear renaissance appears to be at least 10 years away to get started.
Note that low-cost gas has made coal-fired power uneconomical in many locations and now even lower cost SWB especially in locations with a price on carbon, is successfully competing with natural gas in wholesale energy, ancillary services like frequency control, and even in the forward capacity markets. Electrifying everything needs more power and new innovations to put that electric power to work. Electric vehicles, electric motors, batteries, and hydrogen will need new mineral resource and very significant increases in mining. The chart below shows where these minerals are sourced from and where they are being processed.
The chart below from IEA shows just how challenging it will be expanding the production of the metals that are needed to electrify everything. The EV industry has been battery constrained since it started a decade ago and now that EV production is expanding it will be constrained for a decade or more as mining and recycling ramps up.
These demands for new minerals represent major new investments and advances in mining technology. These resources are not distributed uniformly across the planet and many countries stand to benefit from ecologically sound extraction techniques. IEA projects that hydrogen will be required to store energy and to convert industrial manufacturing of ammonia, steel, and cement to carbon-free technologies. Hydrogen has the unique flexibility to store energy by chemical means and making green hydrogen will largely come from electrolyzers. Electrolyzers capacity in 2021 is 250 MW but needs to grow to 850 GW creating a whole industry and infrastructure for storage, distribution, and chemical conversions to liquid fuels and chemicals.
IEA uses the latest statistical data and real-time analysis to confirm initial estimates for 2020 energy demand and CO2 emissions. This provided insights into how economic activity and energy use are rebounding in countries around the world. To predict these new mineral demands IEA uses their own digital twin technology models with statistics from recognized sources like the world bureau of mines. In a manner parallel to modern industrial trends to manage key assets, the management of asset earth uses digital twin models and experts to guide actions that produce real economic benefits.