Experts warn against relying on China

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Extremely strong magnets are essential for major offshore wind turbine ambitions in the Netherlands and Europe. These magnets make wind turbines more efficient and easier to maintain, but almost all of them come from China. There is still little interest in this reliance in current policy, experts and the wind sector trade association say.

The plans for offshore wind are massive: thousands upon thousands of wind turbines will be built in the North Sea in the coming decades – most of them of the type with magnets. These magnets are also essential for electric vehicles, among other things, so analysts expect demand to at least triple in the coming decades.

Western dependence is not new, but it is becoming increasingly urgent. Not only because of the growing demand for important raw materials for the energy transition. “There is also a structural deterioration in the relationship with China, as we have seen in the relationship with Russia since 2007,” says Joris Terre, a China analyst at The Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS).

“There are sometimes up to 12,000 kilograms of magnets in such a turbine,” says Martin de Becker from a company near Eindhoven where they import neodymium magnets, including for windmills. “And if China stops supplying, in a few months our warehouse will be empty.”

‘If Chinese suppliers stop, we have a big problem’

The magnet is made of neodymium, one of seventeen so-called rare earth metals. “Rare” is a bit misleading, because it can be found in so many places. But mining, and especially the processing that accompanies it, is complex and polluting, so many countries prefer not to venture into it. “So China – in combination with low prices – has taken over the supply chain in recent decades,” says Benjamin Sprecher, an industrial ecologist at TU Delft. “So more than 90 percent of neodymium magnets come from China.”

“The Netherlands should be aware of the strategic position that China has taken on this matter,” says Jan Vos, president of NWEA, the wind sector association. “It’s not happening enough right now. There hasn’t been any politics yet, and that has to change.”

In 2020, the European Commission has already defined the security of the supply of important raw materials. Rare earth elements (LREE and HREE, red lines) fall into the higher risk category:

European Commission

Security of the supply of critical raw materials according to the European Commission. LREE and HREE are rare earth metals, like neodymium.

HCSS asked experts from industry, government, academia and think tanks about the possibility of China imposing a commodity export boycott against Europe. “They estimate that chance at more than 50 percent in the next 10 years,” says Tir. “The US is taking far-reaching measures to keep the Chinese chip industry small. Will China leave it at that? The Chinese government has already consolidated a number of large earth metals companies into one under the government in 2021. You can see that a tool is being created They can be used if necessary.”

“When it comes to dependency, we received an important signal in 2010,” says René Klein, an industrial ecologist at Leiden University. “And then China came into conflict with Japan, and after that China limited the export of rare earth minerals, among other things. And then you saw that raw material being used as a weapon. You can compare it to how things are now with Russian gas.”

Policy

Despite the warnings that have sounded for some time, it seems that only now is Europe really waking up. The Netherlands is working on a raw materials strategy for the end of this year, and Europe announced a critical raw materials law this year. Part of the plans is, for example, that in 2030 about 20 percent of rare earth minerals should come from Europe itself.

These stocks exist, but the plans are not yet concrete. It takes ten to twenty years to build a new mine, and the plans often encounter local resistance. “There’s hardly a shovel in the ground,” Klein says. “Everyone wants a Tesla, but nobody wants a mine in their backyard. There’s some movement, but it’s not much yet.”

We depend on China, but they also depend on the rest of the world.

Renee Klein

Another option is to conclude agreements with non-European countries for the supply of raw materials. And you can also build turbines without magnets, but then the industry will have to transform. “It takes extra time, and then the goals of the energy transition are compromised,” Klein says. Wind turbine manufacturer Siemens Gamesa says other technologies are available, but for “strategic reasons” it won’t say how long the switchover will take.

In addition, the (Dutch) policy pays great attention to circularity – reusing the magnets we already have. “This is important,” says Sprecher. “But first you have to build those windmills, and then wait twenty years, and then you can theoretically be circular. The idea of ​​solving this problem circularly is actually rubbish.”

At the same time, experts believe that China will not only stop exports. “We are dependent on China,” says Klein. “But they’re also from the rest of the world. At the same time, I worry that very little is happening in Europe, because this energy transition is badly needed.”

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