Why Some Leaders Fear a Cobalt War

One of the best-known technological advances in the U.S. has been the growth of renewable energy in recent years. The rise of solar, wind and geothermal power means a majority of the country’s electricity comes from renewables, while most fossil fuels and nuclear are declining. This stunning energy transformation was fueled by technology, and it has led to jobs that are paying well. But there are other elements behind the clean energy boom. I have discussed many in my new book, Beyond the Grid: The Four Killer Technologies Revolutionizing Energy. In America, many of the leaders in the clean energy revolution have been women.

But a recent article in the scientific journal Nature revealed a possible battle within the green energy industry over cobalt. The article focuses on small-scale, off-grid energy systems, such as wireless electric systems for collecting solar energy and battery storage. There’s a widespread belief that cobalt is abundant on the planet, despite a multitude of investigations and studies that have found that this is not the case. There is a price war going on over cobalt, with some mining and processing companies jacking up the price and restricting new mine development. Some countries and other companies are investing in cobalt because of the amount of opportunity this presents, whereas others are rethinking investing in it because of the war.

Cobalt is crucial to all those who make or use the technology, both in energy production and distribution. It is also very well researched, and peer-reviewed, an important and key component of all science. You might be familiar with some famous cobalt deposits in other parts of the world, like Belgium. Or Australia. Or West Africa. Or even Africa. So what’s with the fight?

There are two theories of why there is a war. One is that the scarcity of cobalt is a hard bargaining chip for mining and processing companies that want to scare investors and those who are betting on the global supply chain into thinking that cobalt is relatively abundant in the world. The other theory is that miners have been hoarding cobalt to demand that they are paid a specific price. Other speculators are certainly pressuring them to change course. There is also another, more popular theory.

The authors of the article say that cobalt mining and processing companies are fighting back because “they do not want the new market to become too vibrant” and “they want those who invest to realize they will have to pay a high price in the future.” These two theories are substantiated by events that have occurred in recent years.

In August 2017, the Guardian newspaper reported that cobalt mining companies had stockpiled cobalt, but that the reasons for this had “nothing to do with sustainability,” and they were merely “retaliating against newly competitive energy technologies.” In another piece in April 2017, the Guardian also reported that China had suddenly become an important player in the cobalt mining business, citing that the country was “not only the largest domestic user of cobalt, but is now the leading producer of the metal too.” Many other journalists have written about this. In another article in November 2017, the Guardian referred to a new study, which found that the number of new cobalt mines per year had been rising for the past five years and that the average price of cobalt had actually fallen, but that the mine developments weren’t increasing supply.

I have heard the claims that an environmental group may have been using cobalt to influence public opinion, as if this is against the interests of the rest of the world’s citizens, and that was the reason for this particular conflict. But then again, shouldn’t these press statements have been made to be taken seriously? Especially by those who continue to buy cobalt from China? After all, most people are unaware that the earth’s wealth has actually become divided and polluted between China and others. You would think that the appearance of greed and power, those two monsters that drive empires and state actors, should push us toward more sustainability and clean energy.

Leave a Comment