Imports fuel U.S. shift to homegrown power

A U.S. clean-energy boom could force the nation to shed its addiction to foreign oil, only to develop a dependence on imported minerals and metals.

Clean-energy technologies -- solar photovoltaics, geothermal, compact fluorescent and light-emitting diode lighting, and wind turbines -- depend on globally scarce materials, some of which are produced only in unstable nations.

"I've heard it said that the U.S. can move to alternatives if it can accomplish something like the Manhattan Project," Jim Burnell, senior minerals geologist at the Colorado Geological Survey, told a Web-based seminar yesterday. "But a major feature of the Manhattan Project was the acquisition of uranium. I don't see that same sort of movement for critical and strategic metals."

He added, "I don't yet see the recognition that we need them."

All clean-energy technologies require strategic metals, Burnell and other experts said.


Take, for instance, solar photovoltaic technology. It needs cadmium, tellurium, indium, gallium, germanium and silicon.

The United States depends fully on foreign gallium and indium and is 80 percent dependent on imported germanium. Those materials hail from central Africa, China and Russia, places that Burnell said "aren't particularly politically stable."

And how about batteries for storing wind- and solar-generated power or for hybrid and electric vehicles? They need vanadium, zinc, bromine, nickel, cobalt, manganese, lithium and rare-earth elements, a group of 15 metals that are "absolutely indispensable in the use of clean-energy technologies," said Mark Smith, CEO of rare-earth miner Molycorp Minerals. Many of those must be imported.

Then there are energy-efficient light bulbs, which demand the rare-earth metals cerium, lanthanum and europium. Even wind turbines require neodymium, a rare-earth element, for magnets that produce electricity from turning blades.

"All people see is a serene wind turbine turning out in a pasture with cows underneath," Smith said. "I don't think they see a lot of what it takes to get from rare-earth mine to turbine."

The United States has the planet's second-largest concentrated rare-earth deposit, the U.S. Geological Survey says. But China nonetheless produces more than 97 percent of the world's rare-earth needs.

"When you think about these dependencies -- and think about hybrid vehicles as an example -- the use of hybrid vehicles ... is an attempt to minimize dependence on Middle Eastern crude oil," Smith said. "But think about what we're doing here, if that's the purpose. We're trading one dependence for another."

In the case of wind turbines, Smith said, even magnets from rare-earth elements are manufactured in China, despite the technology's development in the United States.

Scott Sklar, president of the clean-energy consulting firm Stella Group, touted the nation's ability to meet its energy needs through renewables in the next 80 years. But he cautioned, "We've got to understand the supply chain to get there."

The nation, he suggested, should do a public inventory of its reliance on minerals and ores similar to data assembled by the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration.

Burnell, meanwhile, called for a push for more domestic mining and a careful consideration of the mining sector by U.S. policymakers.

"In terms of what's done in Washington, we need to carefully recognize that the mining industry is vital to the economy and to our future," Burnell said. "We need to be careful not to squash it."

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