DOE Establishes Database for Tracking Wind Energy Materials

The U.S. Department of Energy has launched a new database that catalogs specific materials used to build wind turbines and solar panels in current and future case-use scenarios. The work aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the demand for raw materials across the globe.

The database will help the DOE create a new lineage of the supply chain for the components of wind energy. Dubbed the Renewable Energy Materials Properties Database (REMPD), it also includes information about the availability, country of origin, physical properties, and significant uses of materials that make up wind and solar facilities, the DOE said.

The database, plus corresponding research, comes at a time when the United States recorded its hottest July on record. Energy needs are expected to continue rising as more extreme weather events increase in frequency due to climate change.

“To achieve a carbon-free power grid by 2035, the wind energy industry will need to install a lot more wind energy plants, increasing their rate of development by a factor of 5 to 10,” Patrick Gilman, program manager in DOE’s Wind Energy Technologies Office, said in a statement. “This comprehensive, first-of-its-kind database helps identify possible future supply chain challenges, and armed with this information, we can proactively develop solutions and accelerate deployment.” 

Beyond the database, researchers from the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory released an analysis, “Materials Used in U.S. Wind Energy Technologies: Quantities and Availability for Two Future Scenarios,” for developers, utilities, and other stakeholders summarizing the impact of solar and wind energy industries on global material supply and demand. 

Specifically, the report looks at the materials needed to support two future wind energy scenarios — one in line with current policies, including integrating the Inflation Reduction Act, plus a high deployment scenario that aligns with the Biden Administration’s goal of a net-zero economy by 2050 and 100% clean electricity by 2030.

The report evaluates supply chain solutions for wind energy demands on certain raw materials domestically and globally. It also computes the type and quantity of materials, such as carbon fiber, that the country would need to construct wind development in both scenarios over a 30-year period.

One significant finding of the report reveals that carbon fiber supply will need to increase to support wind development, as demand may outpace supply. The material is used for strength and stiffness in wind turbine blades.

Other rarer Earth materials, like neodymium, dysprosium, and praseodymium, may be vulnerable to supply chain disruptions if demand rises for wind development acceleration. They are also used in electronics, including cell phones and radar, keeping them in high demand. These materials are mostly confined to China, where close to 60% originate. About 80% of the U.S. rare earth element supply currently comes from China.

The report also found nickel and electrical steel for U.S. wind energy deployment could exceed 5% of global production, while demand for aluminum, copper, and cobalt will surpass 20% of 2020 U.S. production in the high deployment scenario.

However, the report also found that annual demand for most materials used in wind turbines will still be less than 5% of what the world produces in a year through 2050. The report also suggested some alternatives to reduce pressure on some high-demand materials, such as hybrid or superconducting generator designs. 

by Amy Baxter