As the world moves to meet the demand for clean energy technologies, there is an unprecedented need for the rare metals that comprise them.
This has fueled a global race to secure these critical minerals – copper, nickel, lithium, cobalt and many rare-earth elements – that are key building blocks to innovation in zero-emission vehicles, solar panels, microchips and other components of clean technologies essential to mitigating climate change.
At stake is no less than U.S. energy security, the stability of our domestic supply chains and the promise of reshoring clean energy industries and jobs. According to the Department of Interior 2022 Critical Mineral Commodity Summaries, the U.S. is heavily import-dependent for 50 key minerals.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) understands critical mineral extraction represents the building blocks of clean energy technologies that are important to mitigating rapid climate change. However, ensuring that the production of critical minerals to meet this need is done responsibly will be critical in fighting the equally significant challenge of balancing environmental concerns. Moving Arizona and the country to economy-wide, net-zero emissions by 2050 will not be easy. Yet we know what is at stake and how many are committed to making it happen.
Arizona is uniquely positioned to lead in the clean energy space given our state’s legacy of mining, plentiful mineral resources, and fast-growing advanced manufacturing industries, including electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers, battery makers and recyclers, microchip producers, mineral processing facilities, solar companies and other cleantech companies.
Yet it’s important that we embrace this pathway to a net-zero economy while avoiding the sensitive lands, waters, and other natural assets that have been a long-time pride for our state and the Southwest U.S. Arizona has the potential to develop the types of solutions our changing world needs and set an example on how to do it right for the rest of the world.
You may have read the groundbreaking news that LG Energy Solution, a global manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage systems, announced a $5.5 billion investment in Arizona – the largest investment ever for a standalone battery manufacturing facility in North America.
EVelution Energy announced it was building a solar-powered, carbon-neutral cobalt processing facility in Yuma County to support the domestic production of electric vehicles and batteries.
To be sure, these are just two recent examples benefiting our local economy and they put Arizona in a position to be lead in this space.
But zooming out, in addition to expanding domestic production, the U.S. must also develop policies that reduce the need for new mining activities to meet the growing demand for critical minerals. By promoting the reuse and recycling of products containing critical minerals, like EV batteries, we can meet demand with critical minerals already in the economy. Currently, less than 50% of the critical minerals in the waste stream are recycled, but the economics of recycling are improving. Technological advancements are also increasingly allowing us to extract usable metals from old mine tailings and end-of-life products.
Even with these policy measures, demand for critical minerals will drive new production, which means we must be thoughtful on where and how this demand is met. TNC and our partners are sharing data and practices that can improve decision making across the Southwest U.S. and provide a model.
In locations where mineral extraction and infrastructure may be suitable, we want to minimize impacts to Arizona’s lands and waters with investments in new technologies, best management practices, and partnerships with stakeholders, including mining companies and policymakers, to develop collaborative strategies that reduce environmental impacts. When avoiding or minimizing impacts are impossible, we need to deploy science-based mitigation programs that more than offset the environmental impacts of a project.
Again, there are no easy answers, and there will surely be difficult choices and trade-offs, but we must strive to ensure we achieve the best results for people, nature and our economy.
Given the twin crises of climate change and unprecedented species loss, it’s essential that we do everything in our power to accelerate our transition to a net-zero emissions economy and ensure future generations can benefit and enjoy the bounty we rely on from nature. Due to our rich mineral deposits and tremendous biodiversity values in Arizona, it is imperative that we develop thoughtful solutions to meet our clean energy needs while protecting the lands and waters we all depend on.
Dan Stellar is State Director of The Nature Conservancy in Arizona.