Author’s Note: This article seeks to retract statements made in previous articles published earlier this year by The Costa Rica Star with regard to the use of rare earth metals in our country. The specific articles are: The Role of Rare Earth in Costa Rica’s Future, published on Valentine’s Day, and ICE Could Soon Produce 100 Megawatts of Wind Power in Costa Rica, published on June 15th.
Don Roberto Lacal Arantegui is a renewable energy expert who works as scientific officer at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre – Institute for Energy and Transport in Petten, The Netherlands. His work is mainly in support of the European energy policy, and in particular the Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan), in the areas of wind energy and materials for wind energy, and in geothermal energy, hydropower and pumped hydropower storage.
Mr. Lacal contacted The Costa Rica Star via e-mail from his office in The Netherlands with regard to factual errors he found on the two articles mentioned above. Both articles make reference to the use of rare earth metals in wind turbine generators for renewable energy projects in Costa Rica, and the paradox that emanates from that situation. Costa Rica’s interest in wind farms is firmly driven by her goal of becoming a carbon-neutral country by 2021, and thus it is a bit incongruous to think that wind turbine electrical generators in our country would contain rare earth elements -given the environmental impact and huge carbon footprint left by Chinese mining operations in extracting these valuable elements. One of the articles mentioned above stated that paradox right off the start:
“Costa Rica is becoming an even greener country than she already is; sometimes at an ecological cost for some countries, and often to the gain of a few savvy investors.”
Here is the e-mail from Mr. Lacal:
Let me just tackle one statement: “Each wind-power generator and turbine will contain hundreds of pounds of rare earth.” This is not true.
Wind turbine generators that have rare earths have them in the electricity generator, as a key part (31 – 35%) of the magnets when electricity generators are of the “permanent magnet” type. During 2011 wind turbines with permanent magnet electricity generators (PMG) covered approximately 25% of the world market, therefore the word “Each” in the statement above is clearly exaggerated. The other 75% were electromagnet generators which use copper windings and a electricity current to generate magnetism.
In addition, PMG have very diverse use of magnets, the amount used depends heavily on the speed of the generator. To give the reference of a 3-MW generator, if it was low-speed it would use approximately 650kg of magnets per MW; being medium speed some 160-200 kg/MW, and the high-speed version approximately 80 kg/MW.
Now, the maximum share of low-speed PMG in the 2011 wind turbine market is around 14% or 6 GW out of 41 GW installed.
Incidentally, I’m not fully aware of the situation in Costa Rica and I don’t have an updated database. From the information that I have and which covers 300 MW in the wind farms Aeroenergia, Central Tilaran, Chiripa. La Gloria I & II, Guanacaste (juwi), Tejona, and Tierras Morenas in Guanacaste, and San José and Valle Central, none of these wind turbines actually have rare earths. Their manufacturers (Vestas, NEG Micon, Kennetech, Acciona and Enercon) never used permanent magnet generators.
Mr. Lacal recommends the following documents, hosted by the European Union Strategic Energy Technologies Information System (SETI), for further review on this matter:
- Scientific assessment of the materials used in wind turbines
- An analysis of critical metals in strategic energy technologies
One of the wind-power farm component manufacturers mentioned in Mr. Lacal’s e-mail above recently announced the use of rare earth elements: Vestas, which recently acquired Denmark’s NEG Micon, offers the following explanation on its website:
“Rare earths elements are naturally-occurring elements that, once mined and processed, can be used in a variety of industrial applications: permanent magnets used in wind turbines, hybrid car motors, components for military hardware and other high-tech applications.
In Vestas the rare earth elements are used in the magnets found in the tower and in the permanent-magnet generators in some of the newer models – the V112-3.0 MW and 2.0 MW GridStreamer™ platform. The rare earths elements are used to improve the performance of turbines by making the generators more efficient and more grid-compatible.”
Costa Rica is a Vestas client; the Tejona wind farm project in Guanacaste has been using 30 V47/660 turbines to produce about 20,000 KW since 2003. These smaller Vestas turbines do not use rare earth elements, and it is not known whether Costa Rica plans to acquire the powerful 2 or 3 MW Vestas products that contain rare earth in the future. In the electricity-hungry Central Valley, the wind farm in Santa Ana has 17 Enercon turbines. Enercon is a company that is firmly against the use of rare earth elements in their products.
The problem with rare earth metals comes from their mining operations. In early 2011, a Bloomberg news article titled “Rare earths leave toxic trail to Toyota Prius, Vestas turbine“, the paradox was summed up as follows:
“Rare earth metals are key to global efforts to switch to cleaner energy—from batteries in hybrid cars to magnets in wind turbines. Mining and processing the metals causes environmental damage that China, the biggest producer, is no longer willing to bear.
China’s rare earth industry each year produces more than five times the amount of waste gas, including deadly fluorine and sulfur dioxide, than the total flared annually by all miners and oil refiners in the US.”
The future use of the permanent magnet electricity generators that Mr. Lacal mentioned in his e-mail is uncertain due to economic and environmental factors, all having to do with China’s production, stockpiling and control of the rare earth supply. As reported in the industry magazine Wind Power Monthly:
“PMGs are posing a challenge to doubly-fed induction generators (DFIG). A number of major suppliers, including GE and Vestas, have partially switched from DFIG to PMGs.
Overall, wind industry opinion seems to favour PMGs. One potential impact on future PMG development, however, is the availability of rare-earth elements required for PMGs’ field magnets.”
The versatile application of, and the world’s appetite for, rare earth has caught the attention of investors and market speculators who think of it as the next crude oil-like commodity. According to a report on the Wall Street Journal, China is looking at establishing a rare earth trading platform this year, and a Reuters report on the New York Times indicates that the Asian economic behemoth plans to actually import rare earth by 2014. These two new developments from the People’s Republic of China, a country that produces 90 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth, hint at a possible reduction in mining and a desire to exert greater control over pricing and the flow of supply.
The Costa Rica Star thanks Mr. Lacal’s clarification and input on this matter. In the past, clarifications on the use of genetically-engineered crops in our country based on the recommendation of Tico scientists have also been published. The Costa Rica Star welcomes the input of the international scientific community.