With so much at stake, it’s easy for government to gravitate toward environmental “home runs” – huge technology breakthroughs that claim to bring the goal of slowing or reversing climate change within easy reach. Today, billions of dollars are being invested into the research and development of just such technologies: advanced batteries, wind power, hybrid and battery electric vehicles and photovoltaic solar (i.e. direct conversion of sunlight to electricity).
Each of the technologies mentioned above, however, rely upon rare earth elements (REEs) to achieve reasonable levels of performance and economic return on investment. That reliance presents major challenges – both environmental and economic. Since 2000, global demand for REEs has tripled and now stands at 120,000 tons per year. Each of the one million Prius hybrid cars Toyota produces annually contains 16 kilograms of REEs, and a single utility-class wind turbine requires up to two tons of REEs.
REEs are environmentally challenging to mine (deposits often occur in conjunction with radioactive elements), and their refining processes have major negative environmental consequences. The limited quantities available to support “green” technologies are further constrained because these same REEs are also important in national defense – to make, among other things, missile guidance systems and night-vision goggles.
Further, China, which produces 97 percent of the world REE market, has steadily cut its REE exports over the past decade. In 2009 the Chinese government announced it would limit exports to 35,000 tons for each of the next six years – barely enough to satisfy demand in Japan alone. In 2010, China lowered export quotas by 40 percent from the year before. It also recently announced that next year it could cut exports of REEs by up to 30 percent. Its stated reason: environmental concerns. Of course, ensuring a sufficient supply for its internal manufacturing needs could also encourage companies from around the world to relocate their manufacturing to China.
If this sounds familiar – a vital but limited natural resource controlled by a government determined to use it for economic and political leverage – you can begin to understand why REEs are such an important policy issue. In other words, as reliance on REEs and, consequently on China, continues to grow, are we re-creating another Middle East situation by substituting REEs for oil, and China for the Middle East?
This is not to suggest that these technologies should be abandoned. Rather, a different approach to the entire process of environmental policymaking is needed. Home runs are important, but they don’t win every game. It is doing the fundamentals well – hitting singles, doubles, and triples - that wins championships. Policymakers should encourage and direct programs to include new technologies that deliver important environmental benefits on a “base hit” scale, without the potentially catastrophic downside of dependence upon foreign-sourced REEs.
New advances in continuously variable transmission (CVT) technology, which can be applied to improve the efficiency and performance of a wide range of vehicles, are one example of technologies that can provide rationale incremental advances. Another example is new blade design now being tested for wind power, which can enable turbines to extract more energy from the wind. Both these technologies deliver “rare earth-like” improvements, without reliance on REEs.
While neither of these technological advances will solve the climate change crisis on its own, they are part of a growing spectrum of technologies that make significant differences now while limiting the use of precious REE resources. Combined, the cumulative effect of these technologies will make a dramatic impact tomorrow. Working alongside the batteries, wind turbines and photovoltaics, these and other technologies represent the singles, doubles, triples – and occasional home runs – that will move the nation toward its energy goals in a consistent, systematic way while limiting our reliance on foreign-produced REEs.
For policymakers struggling with limited fiscal resources, investing in less glamorous but highly effective, non-REE dependent technologies offers a real opportunity to put the power of government behind ideas and products that are truly “green” and independent of any other agenda not in our control. That’s something everyone can feel good about.