Meet the new 'renewable superpowers'—nations that boss the materials used for wind and solar

Meet the new 'renewable superpowers'—nations that boss the materials used for wind and solar
Salt flats in South America contain much of the world’s lithium. Credit: Guido Amrein Switzerland / shutterstock

Imagine a world where every country has not only complied with the Paris climate agreement but has moved away from fossil fuels entirely. How would such a change affect global politics?

The 20th century was dominated by coal, oil and natural gas, but a shift to zero-emission generation and transport means a new set of elements will become key. Solar energy, for instance, still primarily uses silicon technology, for which the major raw material is the rock quartzite. Lithium represents the key limiting resource for most batteries – while rare earth metals, in particular "lanthanides" such as neodymium, are required for the magnets in wind turbine generators. Copper is the conductor of choice for wind power, being used in the generator windings, power cables, transformers and inverters.

In considering this future it is necessary to understand who wins and loses by a switch from carbon to silicon, copper, lithium, and .

The countries which dominate the production of fossil fuels will mostly be familiar:

Meet the new 'renewable superpowers'—nations that boss the materials used for wind and solar

The list of countries that would become the new "renewables superpowers" contains some familiar names, but also a few wild cards. The largest reserves of quartzite (for silicon production) are found in China, the US, and Russia – but also Brazil and Norway. The US and China are also major sources of copper, although their reserves are decreasing, which has pushed Chile, Peru, Congo and Indonesia to the fore.

Chile also has, by far, the largest reserves of lithium, ahead of China, Argentina and Australia. Factoring in lower-grade "resources" – which can't yet be extracted – bumps Bolivia and the US onto the list. Finally, rare earth resources are greatest in China, Russia, Brazil – and Vietnam.

Of all the fossil fuel producing countries, it is the US, China, Russia and Canada that could most easily transition to green energy resources. In fact it is ironic that the US, perhaps the country most politically resistant to change, might be the least affected as far as are concerned. But it is important to note that a completely new set of countries will also find their natural resources are in high demand.

An OPEC for renewables?

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a group of 14 nations that together contain almost half the world's oil production and most of its reserves. It is possible that a related group could be created for the major producers of raw materials, shifting power away from the Middle East and towards central Africa and, especially, South America.

This is unlikely to happen peacefully. Control of oilfields was a driver behind many 20th-century conflicts and, going back further, European colonisation was driven by a desire for new sources of food, raw materials, minerals and – later – oil. The switch to renewable energy may cause something similar. As a new group of elements become valuable for turbines, solar panels or batteries, rich countries may ensure they have secure supplies through a new era of colonisation.

China has already started what may be termed "economic colonisation", setting up major trade agreements to ensure raw material supply. In the past decade it has made a massive investment in African mining, while more recent agreements with countries such as Peru and Chile have spread Beijing's economic influence in South America.

Or a new era of colonisation?

Given this background, two versions of the future can be envisaged. The first possibility is the evolution of a new OPEC-style organisation with the power to control vital resources including silicon, copper, lithium, and lanthanides. The second possibility involves 21st-century colonisation of developing countries, creating super-economies. In both futures there is the possibility that rival nations could cut off access to vital , just as major oil and gas producers have done in the past.

On the positive side there is a significant difference between and the chemical elements needed for green energy. Oil and gas are consumable commodities. Once a natural gas power station is built, it must have a continuous supply of gas or it stops generating. Similarly, petrol-powered cars require a continued supply of crude oil to keep running.

In contrast, once a wind farm is built, electricity generation is only dependent on the wind (which won't stop blowing any time soon) and there is no continuous need for neodymium for the magnets or copper for the generator windings. In other words solar, wind, and wave power require a one-off purchase in order to ensure long-term secure energy generation.

The shorter lifetime of cars and electronic devices means that there is an ongoing demand for lithium. Improved recycling processes would potentially overcome this continued need. Thus, once the infrastructure is in place access to coal, oil or gas can be denied, but you can't shut off the sun or wind. It is on this basis that the US Department of Defense sees green energy as key to national security.

A country that creates infrastructure, before political and economic control shifts to a new group of "world powers", will ensure it is less susceptible to future influence or to being held hostage by a lithium or copper giant. But late adopters will find their strategy comes at a high price. Finally, it will be important for countries with resources not to sell themselves cheaply to the first bidder in the hope of making quick money – because, as the major oil producers will find out over the next decades, nothing lasts forever.

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Feb 19, 2018
The deniers as shills for the Carbon Lobby, pretentiously wrap themselves in the flag and apple pie. (messy!)

However, the reality of Going Green is a vital National Security strategy.

Besides the trivial matter of salvaging the only available biosphere and maybe, preventing extinction of Humanity.

Feb 19, 2018
Yeeaaah, not exactly. "Renewables," which means electricity generated from wind and solar, account for a fraction of energy production in the world. Even Germany which has gone all in only gets about 13% of the total energy it consumes from wind and solar. In the U.S., about 7% of the total electricity generated is from wind and solar.

There is no realistic scenario where all, or even most, of the energy needs of a major country come from wind and solar. And without the backup provided by coal, natural gas, and nuclear, wind and solar aren't realistic at all. When the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine, you still need electricity, as well as fuel for vehicles.

So, no, there won't be an OPEC-like consortium that will affect energy production from wind and solar because it will always remain a small fraction of the energy source for countries. The best option for "clean" and virtually limitless energy with current technology is nuclear fission.

Feb 20, 2018
@aksdad We are only at the beginning stage of renewables, and prices continue to fall dramatically.

Feb 20, 2018
Since the chemistries that are usable for renewables are so diverse I don't think there will be much of an issue with "renewable superpowers". Particularly since - once the these technologies have pervaded the market - they are mostly recyclable (which is the whole point of the 're' in 'renewables'.)

PV can be silicon, GaAs or perovskites. Particularly the latter is ubiquitous.
Generators and motors contain rare earth magnets but this is not strictly necessary.
Batteries need not be exclusively lithium based.

All alternatives are slightly less efficient than the standard materials. But with the price drops experienced across all these fields such reduced efficiencies would still be economical.
(And, of course, there are still any number of materials in research which may turn out to replace the standard ones)

Feb 20, 2018
There is no realistic scenario where all, or even most, of the energy needs of a major country come from wind and solar.

There's quite a few places which already meet more than 90% of their electricity demand from renewables.

That *energy* demand is not yet there is due to some sectors not yet being changed over (mostly heating and transportation). Transportation is currently in the beginnings of this revolution and the heating sector will follow suit.

There's 139 countries that could go 100% (or as close as makes no difference) renewable across all energy sectors by 2050.

So don't spin this myth about "no realistic scenario"...they know a lot better than you do.

Feb 20, 2018
@aksdad We are only at the beginning stage of renewables, and prices continue to fall dramatically.

We have been in this "beginning stage" for a good 40 years now, and the progress is faltering because governments are finding the forced subsidies too much to pay. Investments are dropping all over the place as the subsidies are being shut down and the real economy of the renewable resources becomes apparent.

So yes, prices continue to fall, because of a lack of demand, because we're finally beginning to climb over the peak of inflated expectations and into the through of disillusionment.

Also, there's the irony of countries with high REE production ending up with vast quantities of uranium and thorium - nuclear fuel - as a byproduct of extracting the resources needed for renewable power.

Feb 20, 2018
There's quite a few places which already meet more than 90% of their electricity demand from renewables.

Again that list of tiny countries or individual towns that rely on hydroelectric stations, or import/export and thus "meet" their demand only on paper. That's just smoke and mirrors - a semantical trick.

You can't extrapolate to entire continents from that.

So don't spin this myth about "no realistic scenario"...they know a lot better than you do.

"They" also rely on a number of unobtainiums, such as cheap batteries, energy rationing, and extensive supergrids to balance the loads. It's a bunch of could if would scenarios that have no (geo)political or practical reality in the world of today.

Feb 20, 2018
Eikka, speaking of 'subsidies' for energy? Do you count in how much of your taxes go to 'subsidize' military and paramilitary and security police operations globally?

Do you count the amount of your taxes paying the subsidies to the shipping industry, ports, terminals and refineries on behalf of our national interests in controlling that network?

Do you count the medical costs from carbon workers, their families and everybody within the plumes of pollutants?

Do you count in the taxes and percentage of your salary you pay for carbon fuel, used in a mutual orgy of corruption and despotism?

Do you count in the costs of a centralized nationalized monopoly?

Cause as much as I josh the libertarian fantasies? I am in favor of a decentralized, locally produced products. Designed to encourage energy conservation and made with reusable materials.

Sorry if that offends your plutocratic pomposity...

Feb 22, 2018
Sorry if that offends your plutocratic pomposity...

Where does that come from?

The systems of subsidies to this and that industry is exactly a crony-capitalist plutocracy where rich politicians keep shoveling money to rich businessmen, and vice versa, to keep up their own bubble. That is what I'm against in all its forms and excuses, whether for "economic stimulus" or "green energy", because that's what it nearly always devolves into.

All subsidies eventually become the ends of their own means, because the social realities that follow cause a lock-in effect where the people recieving the subsidies don't want to give up on them, and whether in a democracy or despotism, those people will use their economical and political power to influence the ruling classes to keep the subsidies going forever.

Why do you think the renewables lobby is simultaneously claiming that renewable energy is cost-competitive, yet demanding more subsidies on the point that it isn't?

Feb 22, 2018
After all, if it is cost-competitive then you're already able to make a profit on your own and any subsidy would just be an unfair redistribution of wealth, reverse robin-hoodism.

If that is the case, then for all intents and purposes, especially if we want to have more renewable energy as fast as possible, we should rather stop overpaying with the subsidies and start buying the renewable power at a competitive market rate to get the most for the least expense.

But if it actually isn't competitive, and you actually do need the subsidies after all this time, seeing that the subsidies were meant to bootstrap and develop the industry to be self-sustaining, what does that tell you of the efficacy of the subsidies in the first place? In that case, should we keep paying the industry fatcats who just keep stuffing the money down their own pockets?

Or is the point that the government should buy your energy for you, and then tax you for it? Why?

Feb 22, 2018
Part of the reason why subsidy programs are popular is the high wealth disparty, causing resentment and a sentiment of "make the rich pay". People support subsidies, imagining that it's somebody else's money, through progressive taxation and other non-egalitarian measures put in place to forcibly equalize the society.

The great masses see an opportunity to steal some social justice for themselves.

But as the situation is, those "other people", the rich who are supposed to pay, remain rich because they are able to extract the money ouf of the poor, so it all goes around in a circle.

What it all does is serve the interest of a political elite - the government - which almost unwittingly maintains the situation because the masses keep voting for a government that promises to spend the rich people's money on the masses in the form of subsidies and welfare, which requires policies that maintain the rich to be taxed, and therefore maintains the social disparity.

Feb 22, 2018
So you subsidize some windmills and hire a bunch of technicians to service them, on the taxpayer dollar, 80% of which comes from the top 20% of earners, so most people see the situation as a net income, and so most people support the subsidy. It seems like a good idea.

But once you consider that those 20% top earners are in their wealth because they're mostly cheating and profiteering, effectively taxing the money out of the rest of the people for very little return in value - what conclusions can you draw from that?

Obviously the fact that if the windmills that you bought actually aren't worth the money paid for them - after all it's you who really paid the money - then you just made yourself more miserable.

Sure, the well-paid technicians are making bank, and the company execs that sold the turbine, and the land owner who collects rent and royalty off of the turbine, but the people in general are worse off than before for having wasted their money.

Feb 22, 2018
Now as a last counterpoint: not all social spending is unwarranted.

Many forms of collective spending, such as on education and health care, can be benefical to all the people in greater amounts than their cost, and can be more effectively handled collectively than privately.

But care must be taken in evaluating such spending, and not fall into the trap of thinking in terms of wealth redistribution and social justice, because there is no justice in such means - it all just goes around to hurt the people it's supposed to serve.

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