Rare earths and wind turbines: A problem that doesn’t exist

There’s a persistent myth about wind turbines that just won’t seem to go away despite reality running to the contrary: they need rare earth materials to generate electricity.

For those not acquainted with rare earths like neodymium and dysprosium, they’re used in products from your iPhone and computer to flat screen TVs and certain types of batteries.

While they can be difficult to mine, rare is a misnomer: they exist in abundance throughout the earth’s crust.

Many people think rare earths are also a necessary component of wind turbines, but the facts find otherwise: only about two percent of the U.S. wind turbine fleet uses them, and that number shouldn’t change much in the years to come.

The vast majority use conventional electromagnets made of copper and steel, and companies that have used rare earths in the past are actively working to reduce their levels of use.

Noted technologist Amory Lovins, the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Chief Scientist and co-founder, recently published an examination of why that’s the case. Lovins is plenty qualified to speak on the topic, having advised major mining companies, written two books on metal mining and a 445-page text on efficient motor systems, done rare-earth physics experiments at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and consulted for MIT’s Francis Bitter Magnet Laboratory, among other achievements.

His whole piece is worth a read, but here are a few highlights and portions relevant to wind turbines. In short, there’s nothing to worry about:

  • Around 2010, many commentators stridently warned that China’s near-monopoly on supermagnet rare-earth elements could make the growing global shift to electric cars and wind turbines impossible—because their motors and generators, respectively, supposedly required supermagnets and hence rare earths. Some such reports persist even in 2017. But they’re nonsense. Everything that such permanent-magnet rotating machines do can also be done as well or better by two other kinds of motors that have no magnets but instead apply modern control software and power electronics made of silicon, the most abundant solid element on Earth (emphasis mine).
  • Both kinds of magnet-free machines can do everything required not only in electric cars but also in wind turbines, functions often claimed to be impossible without tons of neodymium. That some wind turbines and manufacturers use rare-earth permanent-magnet generators does not mean others must. It’s better not to, and the word is spreading.
  • Rare earths are very unlikely to shift the world’s strategic balance or create resource crises, as many investment enthusiasts breathlessly claimed in 2010, months before losing their shirts.