Yale: US Offshore Wind Could Hit a Supply Chain Bottleneck

The implementation of U.S. offshore wind targets will not be as simple or, potentially, as green as it may seem since certain issues can "cause a bottleneck in the supply chain",  according to research by Yale University.

Researchers from Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies challenged the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) offshore wind plans, focusing specifically on the challenge of supplying rare-earth metals needed to build turbines and the environmental, economic and geopolitical issues.

Turbines like those at the Block Island project require incredibly powerful magnets that need enormous amounts, roughly 2,000 pounds, of the element neodymium, a rare-earth metal, said project author Tomer Fishman.

Almost all of the world’s neodymium is mined in China, where costs are cheaper and environmental regulations are less stringent. The magnets are built in Japan and shipped to France where they are fitted into the turbines. In the process, issues, like the current fractious trade relationship between the U.S. and China, can “cause a bottleneck in the supply chain,” Fishman stated.

DOE's plan does not consider the availability of neodymium, the author added, emphasizing that the U.S. has mined neodymium in the past at California’s Mountain Pass rare earth mine but financial troubles and environmental concerns brought operations to cease several years ago.

“We can’t be sure that offshore wind power will take off in the U.S., but there are a lot of positives,” Fishman said. “We’ve seen land-based wind power in the U.S. succeed, in spite of political partisanship. Though this has added layers of complexity, there’s some promise there.”

“What we’re doing now is creating a roadmap to navigate the timing and scale of production. We’re really starting from scratch, which gives us the time to do it right and conduct more research. This is a good starting point.”

Fishman, and co-author Thomas Graedel, found that creating a program to build and install the turbines would create a complex web, raising questions of natural resource consumption, regional demand and the recyclability of the turbine technology, in particular, the reuse of neodymium.

The researchers believe the calculations could kickstart a realistic conversation of internalizing production of the turbines, which, they believe, is possible with proper management.

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