This May saw the approval of the largest solar farm in the United States: the Gemini Solar farm in Nevada will soon be producing 690 MW worth of power, or enough to sustain the entire residential population of Las Vegas. Gemini represents an advancement in the US's efforts to invest in renewable energy and sets expectations for larger solar projects. Considering the ambitious projections in the number of US solar projects scheduled for the coming years, an analysis of solar supply chains is warranted. Specifically, the US must continue to develop its domestic reserves of minerals critical to solar panel and battery production. Efforts to promote the development of domestic reserves are underway and should be accelerated.
Lithium and cobalt are crucial in the production of batteries that store energy produced by solar farms. The US has the third and eighth-largest lithium and cobalt reserves, respectively, but provides less than 1% of the global supply for both minerals. The cause of the low domestic supply is mostly untouched reserves, with few projects producing both minerals. The US has one large scale lithium mine in Nevada operated by Albemarle Corporation, and there are no active cobalt mines in the country. However, mining companies such as Jervois are developing cobalt projects in Idaho to elevate US production to an internationally competitive scale. In addition to the domestic market, there is a ripe international market for these companies to export their products: global demand for lithium will likely triple, and cobalt demand will double between 2017 and 2025.
The US depends on imports for more than half its consumption of both minerals. Given the Gemini project's scale, the developers likely sourced their lithium and cobalt from either Argentina, Chile, Japan, and China. The US's reliance on imports puts it at risk of significant supply chain disruptions. Further, relying on foreign suppliers exposes the US supply chain to concerns over sustainable and ethical sourcing practices. The majority of the world's cobalt originates from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The raw mineral is then exported to different countries, such as China, for processing before being imported into the US. There have been reports of human rights violations at mine sites in both Argentina and the DRC, including child labor and forced removal of indigenous communities. Minerals from these mines undoubtedly make their way into the US's supply chain. The constant threat of conflict minerals entering the American market has led and calls for American companies to strengthen their supply chain monitoring. These concerns surrounding the global supply chain of cobalt and lithium threaten the future development of the US solar, and more broadly, the US renewable energy industry.
The United States can reposition itself in the global lithium and cobalt marketplace by promoting the development of its vast reserves. US lawmakers are aware of the country's reliance on imports of strategic minerals and are taking action. In May 2019, the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee introduced the American Mineral Security Act, which proposes multifaceted solutions to ensure the US's self-sufficiency in the production and processing of critical minerals, including lithium and cobalt. The classification of 'critical' acknowledges the crucial role these minerals play in the country's economic and national security. The Act emphasizes reassessing domestic reserves since experts believe that current estimates are lower than expected. Collecting more data on the size and location of the country's reserves is the first step to promoting domestic production. The bill also emphasizes the need to expedite the Federal permitting process for mining projects, arguing that the current system impedes efficient mine development.
Another way the Act proposes developing domestic reserves is by investing in research to develop more efficient lithium and cobalt recycling technology. The ability to recycle minerals from discarded batteries would drive down prices and make future projects financially viable. Increased support for research and development could lead to breakthroughs that allow the US to produce and process lithium and cobalt at competitive levels and serve as the primary source of the minerals for domestic battery manufacturers.
Lawmakers should focus on passing and implementing the American Mineral Security Act as soon as possible to ensure the sustainability of future renewable energy projects.
Kartikeya Agarwal is a research analyst at Center for Industrial Development