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CERAWeek: Energy Secretary backs mining to plug shortages of minerals needed for energy storage

03 March 2021 Amena Saiyid

US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on 3 March threw her support behind mining for two critical minerals—lithium and cobalt—and for developing substitute materials to meet the growing demand for energy storage amid supply chain disruptions.

In her first public talk at CERAWeek at IHS Markit since the US Senate confirmed her appointment, Granholm said mineral resiliency is very much on the agenda of the sprawling $35-billion-a-year US Department of Energy (DOE) that she will oversee.

"The supply chain vulnerabilities that threaten the nation's ability to manufacture and deploy clean energy technologies is real, so we are leading this charge to identify the opportunities to get those minerals as well as substitute those minerals so that lessens our reliance on it," Granholm said.

The Biden administration has recognized the threats posed by supply chain disruptions from economic competitors, notably China.

On 27 February, President Joe Biden issued an executive order, directing all federal agencies, including DOE, to conduct a 100-day review of the supply chains for four vital products, including key minerals and materials that go into manufacturing advanced batteries used in electric vehicles and energy storage. The order also required each agency, including DOE, to provide a report on supply chains for the energy sector industrial base.

"We need to make sure these supply chains are secure and reliable," Biden said, as he challenged the agency heads to identify opportunities to ramp up production at home as well as invest in research and production into alternatives.

The White House underscored its efforts to secure reliable supplies of critical minerals in its Interim National Security Guidance, which was released the same day Granholm spoke at CERAWeek.

"We will join with like-minded democracies to develop and defend trusted critical supply chains and technology infrastructure, and to promote pandemic preparedness and clean energy," the guidance stated.

Responsible mining

During her CERAWeek talk, Granholm noted that the market for lithium is cornered by China, and cobalt is extracted by the Democratic Republic of Congo, which relies on child labor.

"Can we ourselves be able to extract in a responsible way those critical minerals for our own energy security and put people to work? I think we can," Granholm said 3 March.

When prompted by IHS Markit Vice Chairman Daniel Yergin to elaborate on how DOE plans to tackle the problem, Granholm reminded him that DOE founded and runs the Critical Minerals Institute at its Ames Laboratory in Iowa. This institute is charged with "reducing our reliance on rare earth minerals and other materials that are subject to supply chain disruptions.

She said DOE and the administration have two strategies to deal with the problem of supply disruptions.

"One is to take advantage of our own supply of critical minerals, which we have in abundance, and second, to use technology to research and develop substitute materials so we don't have to rely on our competitors that, if you will, have been hoarded by our economic competitors," she added.

When Yergin asked what message she would send to oil and gas workers who feel they are being left out of the clean energy economy, Granholm said there are multiple opportunities in the clean energy sector that are just waiting to be tapped using existing skills. These include building transmission grids, carbon dioxide pipelines, mining for rare minerals, extracting geothermal energy, scaling up carbon capture and storage, and harnessing the power of hydrogen from natural gas.

"This, particularly growth of clean energy and reduction of carbon, provides a huge opportunity," she said.

Posted 03 March 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate & Energy Research Analyst, IHS Markit

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