Author: L. Michael Buchsbaum

L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

Lithium-rich Chile, already a global renewable energy leader, proposes a new strategy

Despite its historic ties to fossil fuels and copper mining, in recent years Chile has accelerated its energy transition. With a population of just under 20 million, Chile is now targeting 80% renewable electricity by 2030 and a 100% zero emissions power grid by 2050. Last year wind and solar overtook coal as renewables now dominate the local energy sector. Containing massive lithium reserves, a metal critical for renewables, this April Chile’s leadership announced a new national lithium strategy aimed at ensuring that future mining and development proceed equitably as well as environmentally friendly. Already offering global policymakers a playbook for a successful transition towards renewables, Michael Buchsbaum reviews Chile’s emerging plans for its lithium future.

Already a renewable energy leader

Taking advantage of its sun-baked Atacama Desert, which receives some of the world’s highest levels of solar radiation, plus a 4,000 km coastline and consistently strong mountainous winds, since 2016 Chile’s rise in electricity demand has been met entirely by new wind and solar development.

As energy and climate-think tank, Ember, reports, Chile’s solar and wind electricity generation has doubled from 9 TWh in 2018 to 18 TWh in 2021. And over this four year period, annual emissions dropped by 6%, despite overall electricity demand rising by 11%.

Due to this rapid expansion, solar and wind generated 27.5% of Chile’s electricity over the 12 months from October 2021 to September 2022, for the first time overtaking coal power (26.5%).

According to a study conducted by Chile’s Ministry of Energy in cooperation with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), due to its vast renewable potential, Chile is capable of producing more than 5,000 annual terawatt-hours of electricity from clean-energy sources, far more than the average electricity consumption in the country, which currently is less than 100 terawatt-hours per year.

Since assuming office in early 2022, President Gabriel Boric, leader of the left-wing Social Convergence party has continued to rapidly expand and accelerate the nation’s energy transition with an eye towards capturing a sizeable portion of the emerging international green hydrogen market.

The nation’s relatively predictable supply of wind and solar energy has led the Chilean government to estimate that 13% of the world’s green hydrogen could one day be produced within its borders — a hope bolstered by estimates that Chilean green hydrogen could be among the most affordable in the world.

New Lithium strategy

For the renewable energy transition to continue, the world needs lithium, particularly for batteries in electric vehicles (EVs) and electricity storage.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that lithium supplies will grow sevenfold by 2030 — which translates to opening 50 new lithium mines. But to supply enough lithium to limit global warming to 2°C, the IEA suggests output would need to explode some 40 times by 2040. And much of that lithium lies in Chile.

Already accounting for over 26 percent of current production, a study published in early 2023 by the U.S. Geological Survey states that Chile’s borders contain over 36 percent of the globe’s economically recoverable lithium reserves.

As the world’s second largest producer of this metal, Chile now wants to adopt strategies that help meet global demand while protecting biodiversity and sharing mining benefits with indigenous and surrounding communities.

To this end, on April 20, Boric’s government announced a new National Lithium Strategy, which aims to give control of the country’s industry to the state.

“This is the best chance we have at transitioning to a sustainable and developed economy. We can’t afford to waste it,” Boric said in a televised speech.

Under his plan, future lithium contracts would only be issued as public-private partnerships with state control slowly transferring from miners SQM and Albemarle, which dominate production, to a newly formed state-owned company.

Looking ahead, Boric said Chilean state-owned Codelco, currently the world’s largest copper producer, will be tasked with finding the best way forward for a state-owned lithium company.

Chile’s announcement follows Mexico’s which nationalized their lithium deposits last year, as well as Indonesia, which banned exports of nickel ore, a key battery material, in 2020.

All lithium is not created equally

Much of the world’s lithium comes from the so-called “lithium triangle” located in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. The area contains about 54% of the world’s lithium reserves, amounting to 11 million metric tons according to the USGS.

The world’s other largest producer is Australia, which owns 24 percent of known global lithium reserves and produces 47 percent of world supplies.

But where this lithium comes from and how it is processed into matters a great deal.

Australia produces lithium from hard rock mining, whereas Chile produces lithium from brine deposits, which are underground lakes of saline groundwater located under salt flats.

Though mining from brine operations requires longer lead times than hard rock mining, producing lithium from brines has a much lower greenhouse gas emissions intensity than lithium produced from hard rock mining.

Conversely, Australia’s lithium is more easily processed into lithium hydroxide, used in high-end batteries that include nickel, manganese, and cobalt (so-called NMC batteries).

However, lithium from brines is more easily processed into lithium carbonate, which works better in another type of battery that includes iron phosphate, so-called LFP batteries.

Additionally, since the LFP batteries that use lithium carbonate are less energy dense, they are considered cheaper and safer. They can also run more cycles than NMC batteries that use lithium hydroxide.

As a result, LFP batteries are essential to enabling electric vehicles to be accessible for middle and lower-middle-income households, as well as the faster addition of battery storage on the grid.

Reflective of this, the share of LFP batteries in total lithium-ion batteries grew from 20 percent in 2020 to a projected 40 percent in 2023.

According to the USGS, there are only about 8 operations in the world using lithium brines. Of these, Chile is by far the most important producer, holding 61 percent of global lithium carbonate in 2021.

So, while Chile’s role is important in the wider lithium sector, it is particularly vital for the lithium carbonate market.

Additionally, producing from Chile’s lithium resources also helps reduce the global reliance on problematic minerals such as nickel, which is in relatively short supply, as well as cobalt with all its associated human rights issues.

As experts at Columbia University in a recent policy brief relate, “the development of a sound and predictable policy framework—that attracts private investors while advancing environmental, benefit-sharing, and value addition objectives—could make all the difference” as Chile moves forward with its development and sustainability goals while also helping satisfy global demand growth for the lithium which is increasingly vital for the clean energy transition.

Brussels delays billions in recovery funds after Romania halts coal unit closures

By the end of 2022, Romania had met only 33 of the 55 milestones established in its multi-billion euro National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP). Most problematically, major provisions around lignite-fired power plant closures remain blocked. Days before the first coal units were set to shutter, citing the ongoing war in Ukraine, lawmakers in Bucharest decided to delay closure until October 2023. While also moving forward with the construction of both new EU-funded fossil gas plants as well as U.S. subsidized nuclear reactors, NGOs and activists worry Bucharest is simply trying to cash in on the recovery monies while playing the European Union. Now regulators in Brussels have taken notice by delaying disbursement of billions in much needed green energy funding. Continuing the Romanian Power Move series, lead blogger and podcaster, Michael Buchsbaum reviews the unfolding situation.

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Renewable Record: New solar and wind installs prevent catastrophic EU energy crisis

With war raging in Ukraine, Europe simultaneously scrambled to cut ties with Russia, its biggest fossil gas supplier, while also dealing with the lowest levels of hydro and nuclear generation in at least two decades. Though many feared a swing back to coal, a new analysis by the climate think tank, Ember reveals that wind and solar energy largely filled the gap, generating a record fifth of all the EU electricity and overtaking fossil gas for the first time in the process. Additionally, as shown in their newly published European Electricity Review, increased renewable deployment saved consumers billions in higher bills while staving off a larger return to climate-damaging coal. Proving itself to be a potent solution to the triple crisis of energy availability, affordability and sustainability, Ember sees Europe’s response as accelerating the energy transition going forward. Lead blogger and podcaster, Michael Buchsbaum, reviews the new data.

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Finito: Colombia halts new gas, oil and coal exploitation

President Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first-ever progressive leader, wants to help slow global climate change, protect regional biodiversity and bolster Indigenous people’s rights by decoupling the nation’s economy from fossil fuels, starting with a ban on new oil and coal exploration permits. The contentious policy change for the long fossil fuel dependent nation comes on the back of a bonanza year for the industry, which enjoyed a record-setting $22 billion in export revenues. Making good on his campaign promises, in early February Petro presented a $247.1 billion four-year development plan to lawmakers full of sweeping social and economic changes. Lead blogger and podcaster Michael Buchsbaum reviews the evolving situation in this installment of the Colombian Conundrum series.

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Smokescreen for climate inaction: CCS starts to take off in Saudi Arabia and Europe

Given that oil and gas producers dominate the sector, many environmental groups and civil society organizations suspect that investments in Carbon, Capture and Storage (CCS) are being used to divert attention and resources away from a quicker build-out of renewable energy systems and other proven methods of addressing climate change. At the end of 2022, as several of the world’s largest petrochemical firms announced ambitious CCS investment plans, the European Union finally released a draft of their proposed CCS framework. As lead blogger and podcaster Michael Buchsbaum discusses, hundreds of environmental, climate and civil society groups, including the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, immediately deemed it a “smokescreen for inaction.”

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Biden’s climate push ensures US stays #1 in giant carbon sucking machines

The U.S.’ Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has been hailed as both a jobs-creating infrastructure stimulus and a clean energy booster. To ensure bi-partisan support in the otherwise polarized United States, it also provides generous tax credits for investments in carbon capture and sequestration or carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. Beyond the $12 billion in other government support for CCS, bonus funds are now available to prove out experimental “Direct Air Capture” (DAC) technology. Recently Airbus bought 400,000 tons of carbon removal credits from a planned DAC facility in Texas’ oil-soaked Permian Basin. When operational in 2024, owner Occidental Petroleum promises it will be capable of sucking one million tons of CO2 out of the sky every year. And as lead blogger and podcaster Michael Buchsbaum reviews, Oxy will then use that CO2 to produce millions of barrels of climate friendlier “net-zero oil.” Confused? Welcome to America’s suck rush.

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Solution or boondoggle? Evaluating Carbon Capture technology’s state of global play

Despite our awareness that burning fossil fuels is the biggest driver of climate change, CO2 emissions likely increased by another 1.0% in 2022, hitting a new record high of 36.6bn tonnes. While certainly it would be better to switch to low or no-carbon energy sources, another potential solution, one mainly championed by the oil and gas industry, is to capture as much CO2 as possible and store it underground. Though scientists begrudgingly accept that some mixture of carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems will need to be deployed to avoid dangerous global heating, to date it’s unclear if the technology actually works. Worse, the vast majority of operating CCS plants actually use captured CO2 to produce more oil. But seen as critical to the emerging hydrogen economy as well as solving climate change, with dozens of new CCS projects announced worldwide this year, in this three-part series, lead blogger and podcaster Michael Buchsbaum reviews the scene.

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Geothermal Iceland: this land of fire and ice is pushing the limits of its natural energy

While much of Europe suffers from escalating fossil fuel prices and fears of winter power cuts, Iceland – which has taken advantage of its natural resources by tapping into the geothermal heat lying deep underneath its soil and harnessing the power of vast amounts of snowmelt cascading from its interior to the ocean, has enjoyed more stable energy prices. Essentially 100% powered by renewable energy, in recent years its attracted a variety of industries, such as aluminum producers and, more recently, data centers. But changing rainfall patterns, rising populations and heavier personal consumption is pushing hot water production to its limits. Nevertheless, the nation is proud of its dependence on geothermal energy, a knowledge-base its long “exported.” Lead blogger and podcaster, Michael Buchsbaum has the story.

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EU smashes renewable records as it urgently breaks free of Russian fossil fuels

Since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, European Union member states have been feverishly reworking their energy policies to reduce their reliance on Russian gas, coal, and oil. To help accelerate the shift, energy developers are rapidly increasing investments in solar and wind power. This summer, solar, helping the EU tackle not only its energy problem but also soaring inflation. According to a new report by climate think tank Ember, about a quarter of the EU’s electricity now comes from just wind and solar. Combined,  Lead blogger and podcaster Michael Buchsbaum reviews how clean domestic energy is saving EU ratepayers money while helping slow global climate change.

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South Africa secures international aid at COP27 to champion the coal to renewables shift

South Africa’s ambitious plan to transition away from coal was endorsed at the recent COP27 climate conference in Egypt where officials from Britain, France, Germany, the United States, and the European Union signed pledges of $8.5 billion to help fund its initial steps. Currently South Africa relies upon coal to generate up to 87% of its electricity, but by the end of the decade the nation wants to close more than half its aging, unreliable coal-fired power stations and replace them with new solar and renewables. Yet today state-owned energy provider Eskom is struggling to provide consistent electricity. But despite the climate benefits, citizens and miners fear the plan may end up costing hundreds of thousands of jobs, lead to the privatization of Eskom and rapid market liberalization as operators race to construct solar farms near existing coal facilities. Lead blogger and podcaster Michael Buchsbaum reviews the situation. Read part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series.

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