What about mineral demand in Future Transmission and Distribution Grids?
Future Transmission and Distribution Grids use a lot of minerals. Metals like aluminum, copper and silver are used for various applications ranging from simple conductors and transformers to advanced power electronics, e.g. inverters and static VAR compensators. In addition to metals there are other minerals, like Gallium and Indium, used in photovoltaic systems, Neodymium for permanent magnets in motors and wind turbines, and several rare earth metals (lanthanides) in computer and telecommunication systems, and even gasses like Fluorine and Helium for high-voltage circuit breakers and cooling purposes respectively.
Although the demand for minerals has slowed down recently and prices have dropped due to limited growth in China, one wonders if minerals will become scarce or even exhausted in the future. The yearly US geological survey on mineral commodities clearly indicates that most known reserves will be exhausted within 100 years, based on the present consumption and growth rate. There are also lists of so-called critical minerals that are either scarce or not easily substitutable, like Fluorite, Chromium, Germanium and Indium.
Is scarcity really a problem? The fact is, mineral reserves do not increase significantly over the years, ores tend to become more expensive to mine and refine, and, in some cases, minerals are not (yet) recyclable. On the other hand, only a small percent of the earth crust has been exploited so far. One conclusion is that we have to recycle more minerals to ensure sufficient supply in the future.
For grids, the consequence is that there is another challenge to be met – apart from providing a reliable and affordable electricity supply: “use as few minerals as possible,” and even look for substitutes for the critical minerals used now. For example, the shift toward power electronics and DC applications will reduce the mineral demand considerably but, on the other hand, the trend toward more underground cables increases demand. However, new innovations, like the development of organic solar cells, will reduce demand on minerals used for semiconductors. In general, developments in advanced materials will reduce Smart Transmission and Distribution Grids’ future mineral demand to ensure a sustainable electric power supply.