Top scientists warn of huge energy and materials pressures from electric vehicles

Top UK scientists have warned the Government of the massive pressures on energy generation and raw materials from rising electric vehicle (EV) production.

The scientists advise that the national net zero target of 2050 means it is likely that all cars and vans on the roads in the UK will need to be electric by then.

And this “revolution in the way we travel” will require a huge amount of resources, including metals, as well as much more energy for material extraction, EV production and for battery charging.

The extreme pressure on energy needs in particular underlines the urgent need to transform the way we use energy in the UK with radical moves to ensure every business, organisation and household converts to energy-efficient LEDs and smart controls for lighting.

Climate change

Professor Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum and fellow expert members of SoS MinErals research group have outlined their concerns in a letter to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent body that advises the Government.

The museum, as a major scientific research institution and authority on the natural world, supports the urgent need for a big reduction in carbon emissions to limit further catastrophic consequences of climate change.

It is collaborating with leading researchers to identify resource and environmental implications of the transition to green energy technologies, including EVs.

To achieve net zero carbon emissions, the UK must either create no carbon dioxide at all, or remove the equivalent amount it releases from the atmosphere.

Growth of EVs

While the CCC’s report, Net Zero: The UK’s Contribution to Stopping Global Warming, concludes that “net zero is necessary, feasible and cost effective”, the growth of EVs would mean a big leap in UK-generated electricity.

There are 31.5 million cars on the UK roads, travelling 252.5 billion miles each year, which would mean when replaced by EVs, 20% more energy will be needed to recharge them – using at least 63 TWh of power.

This impact on energy generation also has knock-on effects for the materials sectors. If wind farms were chosen to generate the power for the increased number of EVs, we would need the equivalent of a further years’ worth of total global copper supply and 10 years’ worth of global neodymium and dysprosium production to build the wind generators.

The scientists also see challenges with resource-hungry solar power. Photovoltaic systems currently rely on one or more raw materials classed as “critical” or “near critical” by the EU and/or US Department of Energy.

This is because high purity silicon, indium, tellurium and gallium are either naturally scarce or are minor-by-products of other commodities.

72GW needed

The team at the museum has calculated that with a capacity factor of only around 10%, the UK would require about 72GW of photovoltaic input to fuel the EV fleet – over five times the current installed capacity. And if CdTe-type photovoltaic power was used, this would consume more than 30 years’ worth of current annual tellurium supply.

Both wind and solar generation for the predicted electrical power generation capacity would create substantial demands for steel, aluminium, cement and glass, with further energy impacts.

The scientists also say that to meet UK electric car targets for 2050 we would need to produce just under two times the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production.

Even ensuring the annual supply of EVs only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry.

Global pressures

If this analysis is extrapolated to the projected estimate of two billion cars worldwide, based on 2018 figures, annual production would have to increase for neodymium and dysprosium by 70%, copper output would need to more than double and cobalt output would need to increase at least three and a half times for the entire period from now until 2050 to satisfy the demand.

Professor Herrington says:

“The urgent need to cut CO2 emissions to secure the future of our planet is clear, but there are huge implications for our natural resources not only to produce green technologies like electric cars but keep them charged.

“Over the next few decades, global supply of raw materials must drastically change to accommodate not just the UK’s transformation to a low carbon economy, but the whole world’s. Our role as scientists is to provide the evidence for how best to move towards a zero-carbon economy – society needs to understand that there is a raw material cost of going green and that both new research and investment is urgently needed for us to evaluate new ways to source these. This may include potentially considering sources much closer to where the metals are to be used.”

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