Lithium: The Link Between the Ukraine War and the Clean Energy Transition
When the war in Ukraine began in late February, a humanitarian crisis was created–and also an energy crisis. Europe is heavily reliant on Russian energy, sourcing 40% of its oil and natural gas from the invading nation. Some saw the war as a wake-up call for global energy security and a much-needed impetus for clean energy development. In fact, Germany, Russia’s top European customer, is already signing contracts with new oil suppliers and committed $216 billion in renewable energy investment to ease its dependence. While reducing fossil fuel use has gotten the most media attention, what is less often discussed is how the war is affecting the world’s ability to transition to clean energy in an economically feasible way.
According to preliminary estimates, researchers believe that Ukraine is a treasure trove of lithium, holding about 500,000 tons of the “non-renewable mineral that makes renewable energy possible.” Lithium has become virtually irreplaceable in electric vehicle (EV) batteries because of its efficient energy storage per unit of weight. Skyrocketing global demand growth for lithium is estimated to range from 400% to 4,000% in coming years. Demand will outpace supply and, without more investment in mining capacity, costs could become prohibitive to EV adoption. Elon Musk’s dream of lowering prices to attract new customers was already crushed when Tesla announced a price hike of over $2,370 for its Model Y vehicle soon after the crisis began.
Lithium is critical to a successful clean energy future. Losing access to one of the largest potential sources of lithium oxide in the world has raised concerns about the world’s ability to bridge the gap in supply. What we need now is a greater focus on domestic lithium extraction, especially as countries realize the immense risk of internationalized global energy supplies. But in the United States, for example, lithium mining is an extremely contentious topic. Ironically, traditional lithium extraction causes substantial damage to the environment, contaminating local groundwater and potentially killing threatened species.
More environmentally-friendly sources of lithium do exist. For one, lithium can be recycled. Battery recycling programs instituted by the Biden administration could cut the nation’s need for lithium by 25%. Existing geothermal power plants located under lakes in California could be another source of lithium, as they release steam saturated with lithium that can be extracted with devices called scrubbers, simultaneously producing green energy and lithium. While California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, recently said that lithium production from the Salton Sea could make the region the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” The project is only in the exploratory phase, and no one knows whether it will be possible to meet promised levels of extraction.
The war in Ukraine has created a rare ‘policy window’ in which lawmakers and the public are more likely to devote attention and support to legislation that targets energy independence. Given the immense political gridlock in Congress that has often blocked comprehensive clean energy packages, lawmakers should take advantage of this opportunity to fund research and development for domestic lithium extraction, with special attention to projects with low environmental impact. In the words of Rahm Emanuel, former White House chief of staff, “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
This insight is a part of our Undergraduate Seminar Fellows’ Student Blog Series. Learn more about the Undergraduate Climate and Energy Seminar.