Posts Tagged rare earths
We may have to wait a little longer to start breaking China’s stranglehold on the world’s supply of rare earth metals. Something called the Western Watersheds Project has filed a lawsuit to derail a solar project in San Bernadino County, and that same lawsuit may have the effect of shutting down a spur from an existing gas pipeline that Molycorp will need to power its mine. The offended species? Tortoises.
Concerning Molycorp, Connor pointed to an 8.6-mile pipeline proposed to carry natural gas to Mountain Pass for power generation. The so-called Mountain Pass Lateral will, if allowed, carry gas from an existing line owned by Kern River Gas Transmission Line near the Ivanpah Solar Project. “The lateral will pass by the Ivanpah Power Plant, the area where the tortoises are to be relocated, Connor said. “They were given no consideration.”
George Kenline, San Bernardino County’s mining geologist, who issues mining permits and other relevant county permits, praises Molycorp’s new direction. Once a major polluter, Molycorp, he said, “It (Molycorp) decreases the amount of impact because it eliminated the evaporation ponds,” which were a major problem before and have been completely removed from the new project.
Ironies about, the most obvious of which is the attack on a solar project by an environmental group. But then, there’s the fact that the Watersheds Project is seeking to derail a mining operation that has completely changed the way in which is uses water, recycling almost all of its water and getting rid of evaporation ponds. As well as the fact that the rare earths are used extensively in high-power magnets in hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles, and wind turbines. Environmental groups, which enjoy specially-granted standing to file these sorts of suits, are now standing in the way of the kind of change they claim will save us all from catastrophe. Revolutions do eat their own, after all.
Molycorp may have the permits to operate the mine, but it can’t do so without natural gas. It’s further evidence that while a strategic stockpile of rare earths might be a good idea, the real solution is clearing away the regulatory underbrush that ties down useful projects in the first place.
In the meantime, engineers are trying to create high-power magnets that don’t use rare earths at all. This is equally big news in the longer-term, but for the moment, as in so many other similar efforts, the problem will be scaling the magnets up to useful sizes, which may take years. In the meantime, it would be nice to know that these new magnets are competitive in their own right, and not merely because the cost of their competition is being driven up by regulation.
The Denver Post this morning reports that a lack of rare earths may be inhibiting the domestic solar cell industry. How this is so, they never quite describe. There’s no calculation, for instance, of what percent of a solar panel’s production cost comes from rare earths. Possibly, this is because rare earths aren’t actually used in the production of solar cells. According to a DOE study on strategic materials, solar cells use indium, tellurium, gallium, and maybe soon, selenium, none of which is in the lathanide series of rare earths. A briefing by the Rare Earth Industry Trade Association on the importance of rare earths to green energy applications doesn’t mention solar at all.
By coincidence, the New York Times this morning ran a piece on why solar panel manufacturers are relocating to China, and it seems that the reason has nothing to do with rare earths, which aren’t mentioned at all, and everything to do with our willingness to take the place of Germany and Spain in directing massive subsidies to the panels’ production. And in spite of our increasing mandates on so-called renewable energy as a source of electricity, it’s also not clear that we’ll be willing to force utilities to pay the exorbitant rates necessary to make large solar arrays profitable.
That, not the absence of a local rare earth supply, is what’s threatening a domestic solar industry.