Coal — the longtime nemesis of the green movement — stands to play a significant role in America’s transition from gas-powered to electric vehicles by supplying rare-earth elements for high-tech batteries.
The big question is whether President Biden and environmentalists will acquiesce.
Coal and its byproducts contain many of the critical minerals necessary to produce electric vehicle batteries. For instance, the top layer of rock and sediment under which coal lies contains rare earth minerals, such as neodymium, europium and terbium.
Those minerals are vital for manufacturing electric vehicle batteries and other household electronics, including iPhones and computer tablets. Even though the minerals are crucial for technology production, the sediment containing the minerals is often disposed of as refuse after coal is excavated.
What’s more, the 140 million tons of ash produced annually from burning coal also is rich in rare earth minerals, specifically cobalt and nickel. The two substances are vital for batteries, including those used in electric vehicles.
That creates an opportunity to repurpose the byproducts of burning and excavating coal, according to energy industry experts.
“I think we’ll see over the next three or four years, significantly greater development of critical minerals from coal,” said Anthony Marchese, chairman of the Texas Mineral Resource Corporation.
The White House did not respond to repeated inquires about coal’s contribution of rare earth minerals.
Mr. Biden‘s national climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, has made it clear that a carbon-free electricity standard is the goal.
“We have to be bold,” she recently said.
The aversion to coal is not only evidenced at the White House and within the environmental movement.
This week, roughly 80 of the nation’s leading companies wrote a letter to lawmakers in Congress demanding the removal of coal and other fossil fuels from the electric grid.
“Millions of Americans are already feeling the impacts of climate change,” wrote the companies, which included General Motors, Apple, Google, PayPal and eBay. “A clean electric power grid is an essential component of America’s transformation to cleaner energy throughout the economy.”
There are difficulties in making coal a long-term source for critical minerals.
One current problem is that coal ash holds only trace amounts of rare earth minerals. That means companies need both an abundance of coal ash and a proven way to process it en masse to make a profit.
Mr. Marchese, whose company is working to bolster the domestic supply of such minerals from greenfield sites in Texas, said those issues make luring private sector investment difficult.
“Who’s going to put in $30 [million] to $40 million for a project if it’s unclear that you have enough coal ash and that your process will yield enough critical minerals to make a business out of it,” he said. “There’s a reason why, to date, coal ash has not been a source of revenue for anyone.”
Although the process for extracting critical minerals from coal refuse is proven, few companies have made broad investments in it. The problem stems from minerals not being uniformly concentrated in the sediment found above coal.
Research into perfecting the coal-rare earth mineral process remains in the early stages, largely because research funding has been scarce from both the federal government and the private sector.
The Department of Energy recently announced $19 million in grants toward studying the topic, but experts say that is far less than what is required.
Given the difficulties, the future relationship between coal and electric vehicles may end up tied to the resource’s past.
For most of the 20th century, anthracite coal mined throughout Appalachia and parts of the industrial Midwest provided the electricity needed to power the U.S. economy. Since the early 2000s, however, coal has steadily lost ground to other forms of energy, especially natural gas.
Even so, coal accounts for nearly 20% of electricity produced in the U.S. annually, according to the Energy Information Administration. That figure likely would increase as the transition to electric cars increases the electricity demand.
Energy experts argue that a stable and abundant electricity supply would be required for electric vehicles to overtake gas-powered cars. Some estimates indicate that annual electricity consumption would more than double if everyone transitioned to an electric vehicle.
The White House, however, isn’t looking to coal to pick up the slack. Instead, Mr. Biden backed decarbonizing the electricity sector in favor of solar and wind power.
“The whole thing is a disaster,” said Steve Milloy, who was a member of President Trump’s presidential transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. “The electric grid is not built for 24/7 demand, which is what electric vehicles would command and you certainly won’t get there by cutting out coal and relying on wind and solar.”
Critics argue that the White House’s aversion to coal only serves to benefit China. The communist power dominates the global market for critical minerals through its mining operations and trade partnerships in Africa and South America.
In 2019, the London-based firm Benchmark Mineral Intelligence found that China produced 80% of the raw materials used for electric vehicle advanced batteries.
Last year alone, the U.S. imported about 80% of its rare earth minerals and compounds from China.
“The United States is nearly 100% reliant on China for critical minerals processing,” said Rep. David McKinley, a Republican from the coal state of West Virginia. “This is unacceptable and hurts our national security. Instead of relying on China, we should be focused on developing a domestic critical minerals supply chain.”
Republicans say only by expanding research into coal will that be possible.
“With our nation’s abundant coal resources, coal will no doubt play an important role in developing a domestic market for critical minerals,” Mr. McKinley said.
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