Event report: The role of materials in the energy transition, Tue. 19 November 2013

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The role of materials in the energy transition

By: Mariësse van Sluisveld

Energy transition or material efficiency?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that, in order to limit the effects of climate change, a reduction of 50–85 per cent in global greenhouse gas will be needed by 2050, advocating a radical shift away from today’s fossil-fuel-derived economy. Moreover, modern society is continuously more dependent on the (affordable) access to raw materials from which high-tech materials are produced for the automotive, aviation, electronics, medical, power generation, construction and other industries. For most materials, used for example in buildings, infrastructure, equipment and products, global stocks are still sufficient to meet the increasing future demand; but the environmental impacts of material production and processing, particularly those related to energy, are rapidly becoming critical. In this respect, it is not energy efficiency, but rather material efficiency that presents itself to be the bigger challenge in a resource-constrained world.

Curtailment in production already today!

In order to stay in line with the predefined stabilization target in climate policy, it would require the need to triple or quadruple our current mitigation efforts in a multilateral cooperative setting. With the current technocratic approach to achieve such a target, this would require an annual renewable energy capacity addition unprecedented to history. One might question whether these growth estimates are realistic and practically feasible, considering an observed curtailment in production for certain technologies affecting our society already today. For example:

  • Jet engine manufactures have had to deal with the shortages of rhenium
  • Loudspeaker manufacturers have been severely impacted by magnet prices (current state-of-the-art)
  • Tesla motors may be forced because of shortage of supplies of Li-ion batteries (curtailed production already!)
  • Production of high-output T5 fluorescent lamps have been delayed by two years because manufacturers claim that there is a shortage of Eu and Tb for the phosphors

See COST meeting, 18-20 Nov. 2013, TU Delft, Delft for more examples

Materials – another unconvenient truth?

During this event three speakers of various disciplines discussed the status of materials, each triggering the audience with inspirational messages capturing the scale of the problem. During the first session, Ton Veltkamp (Senior Manager Photovoltaics, ECN Solar Energy) expounded on the challenges that we are to face in the medium-to-long term in respect to the developments for a renewable energy portfolio. In a generally pessimistic outlook, Veltkamp describes that even in a situation where society is willingly shifting to more sustainable substitutes, the developments would take 15-30 year to mature. Moreover, past experiences show us that efficiency measures have even an inherent paradoxical effects on the net use of materials. However, Veltkamp also included some optimism: silicon PV is a material found to be abundantly available to provide to the global community (although silver could be considered the bottle neck element for production).

Circular is the new Linear

Ronald de Vries (Senior Industry Analyst, Rabobank International) stressed for a need for new business models in an society with increasingly growing material demand, making a switch from the common ‘linear thinking’ (consuming your resources) to a more ‘circular economy’(in which waste does not exist). De Vries specifically mentioned a responsibility for incumbent companies, like Unilever and DSM, to adapt to such kind of new business models: stating that these are the leading companies in the circular economy. However, several conditions need to apply in order to acquire a radical change in their (commercial) thinking, for which political urgency, (economical) scarcity and willingness or awareness are a few of the mentioned pre-conditions. As a final statement, De Vries mentioned that ‘ we should never waste a good crisis’.

Material efficiency mismanagement

Ernst Worrell (Professor Energy, Resources & Technological Change, Utrecht University’) sketched a slightly opposite picture from the previous speaker. Worrell addressed concerns about the impact of society on the availability of resources, stating that “We are a bigger bulldozer than mother nature in the periodic table”, even with the earlier mentioned pre-conditions at hand (awareness, scarcity and tools). Moreover, as Worrell mentioned: ‘never waste a good crisis? It is just a small bleep in the charts’. Conflicting interests prevent us from utilizing our potential to move to a more resource efficient economy. Worrell focused on packaging materials as a characteristic example of increasing volumes of in-efficiently used materials (waste), for which relatively easy and low-cost measures exist in abundance. However, as resource efficiency is not the main focus in current day politics, policy fails to adequately support and explore the right approach in this area of waste management.

Materials part 2?

The word ‘paradox’ has served as a common denominator across the various presentation, stretching out over the full energy supply chain. We have touched upon the topic of rare metals in the energy transition (supply side paradox) while gradually moving towards business responsibilities and residential waste management (demand side paradox). Despite being a rare topic in YES-DC, YES-DC could welcome a remarkable number (over 40!) of interested members and other interested people to attend this pilot event. Although the plenary discussion was too short for in-depth discussion, a certain level of fierceness and disbelief in current day practices could be sensed indicating the YES-DC feels invited to plan a sequel on this matter. Luckily, soon after wrapping up the event, we moved over to Bar Walden to drink any future nervousness away and pick up the conversation where we left off earlier. As a final note, I would like to thank everyone for making this event a success, please let us know about your experiences or interests on this topic in the comment section below!

To be continued…

About the speakers

[message_box title=”Dr. Ton Veltkamp (Senior Manager Photovoltaics, ECN Solar Energy).” color=”white”]
Dr. Ton Veltkamp (1960) took his PhD at the Free University of Amsterdam in chemistry (1989). He worked on environmental chemistry at the Energy Research Centre of The Netherlands (ECN) from 1989-1990. Since 1990, he was manager of various research laboratories at NRG and ECN. Since 2000, he joined ECN Solar Energy as manager of Thin-film Photovoltaics and Crystalline Silicon Photovoltaics-Manufacturing Technology, with a special interest in sustainability of solar energy. Since 2013 year, his main task is program development of sustainable energy technologies. [/message_box]

[message_box title=”Ronald de Vries (Senior Industry Analyst, Rabobank International).” color=”white”]
Ronald de Vries is Senior Industry Analyst at Rabobank International for (risk) assessment of Energy, Natural Gas and Resource/Waste markets. Previously he worked at RoyalHaskoning DHV as the Director of the Advisory Group Waste & Energy in the energy and resource recovery sector. [/message_box]

[message_box title=”Prof. dr. Ernst Worrell (Professor Energy, Resources & Technological Change, Utrecht University)” color=”white”]
Ernst Worrell (Ph.D.) is professor ‘Energy, Resources & Technological Change’ at Utrecht University in the Copernicus Institute. He has led the industrial energy assessment work at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory until 2008 and was Director Energy Use & Efficiency at the sustainable energy consulting company Ecofys between 2004 and 2010. He was a visiting scientist at the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Princeton University, and visiting professor at the Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil. His research includes research and evaluation projects in industrial energy and material efficiency improvement, as well as waste management and processing. He is author of four IPCC reports. He is (co-) author of over 250 publications. He has been Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, one of the leading journals in the field of resources efficiency, associate editor of Energy, the International Journal and of Energy Efficiency, and editorial board member of Waste Management. [/message_box]


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