Rare Earth Rub: A Clean Energy Roadblock That Cannot Be Ignored

March 22nd, 2011

President Obama in his State of the Union set an important goal for drawing 80% of our energy from clean sources by 2035. He showed political grit, which will be needed to achieve an energy revolution.

But there’s an elephant in the room that few of our leaders are talking about: growth in key clean energy technologies requires rare earth elements (REE) that America has stopped producing. And the Saudi Arabia of their production – China – is using its monopoly on REE production to force companies that need the metals to move their plants there, rather than keep them here.

REE are a group of 17 chemical elements that are used in most every sustainable energy technology, including wind turbines, solar cells, hybrid cars and efficient appliances. Despite the misleading name, rare earths are actually quite abundant, but there are only a few places in the world where concentrations are high enough to make mining profitable.

Twenty years ago, America led the world in REE production, but in the 1990s, China set out to monopolize the important elements. It understood that by controlling REE production, it could see explosive growth in manufacturing and lucrative R&D jobs. China today produces 97 percent of the world’s REE supply, and it has dramatically slashed exports to about 40,000 tons per year, roughly a quarter of global demand. As a result, China is now able to force REE-dependent international companies to move their manufacturing operations there.

Herein lies the problem for American policymakers; An energy revolution on the scale envisioned by the President would require tens of thousands of wind turbines, large-scale solar plants, smart meters and a litany of other technologies that need REE. Construction of just one utility scale wind turbine can require at least a ton of REE.

To realize the President’s dream of an energy revolution – and the tens of thousands of new green energy jobs that would come with it – the U.S. must commit itself to re-developing a domestic supply chain of REE that includes mining, separation, refining, alloying and manufacturing. Without a domestic supply chain, we may find ourselves even more dependent on foreign countries for our energy tomorrow than we are today.

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The U.S. Geological Survey estimates at least 13 million tons of extractable REE exists within the U.S., but harvesting our natural resources requires a supportive government effort and an industry that is willing to be transparent regarding its ability to protect the environment.

Reestablishing a domestic supply chain will also require a new talent pool of workers educated in physical, chemical and mathematical sciences. As America’s REE industry fell behind China, so did its expertise. The U.S. today ranks 25th in math and 21st in science relative to the rest of the world. Rebuilding intellectual capital takes time, and it will require a new national commitment.

If energy security and economic growth is our challenge, this is indeed America’s ‘Sputnik’ moment. Achieving an energy revolution will require that barriers to responsible mining and manufacturing be removed, and that will require commitment to address concerns about environmental issues. Equally important, American families and the nation’s educational system will have to take on a central role in producing a cadre of technically trained men and women needed “to win our future.”

The President deserves credit for laying out a bold vision for American energy. He was correct in recognizing that progressives and conservatives, Representative and Senators, Democrats and Republicans must work together to make it happen. And it is up to all of us to insist that they do.