Offshore wind industry in need of rare earth magnets

Demand for neodymium rare earth magnets from the offshore wind power industry is set to soar in the next decade if decarbonization plans are realized

Offshore wind capacity targets – that might see ninefold growth in installations by 2030 – are under threat without global changes in policy, financing and managing supply chain risks, an international industry body said recently.

“By the mid-2020s there may be supply-chain bottlenecks in every region of the world except China. Immediate investment and global co-operation will be needed to address these bottlenecks,” the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) said in a report published in late August.

These bottlenecks include higher costs for raw materials, logistics and unpredictable policies.

These warnings were supported by the latest UK national renewable energy auction on 8 September which received no bids for new offshore wind farms.

Installations must multiply to reach targets

The latest roadmap from the International Energy Agency “requires offshore wind annual installations to grow ninefold, from 8.8 GW in 2022 to 80 GW by 2030, with 70 GW to be deployed every year between 2031 and 2050.”

To reach that goal, GWEC expects the global industry to pass milestones of 30 GW offshore wind turbines installed in 2026 and 50 GW by 2030.

The International Renewable Energy Agency has said that current fixed and floating offshore wind capacity is 64.3 GW but should be scaled up.

“GWEC Market Intelligence expects that over 380 GW of new offshore wind capacity will be added over the next decade (2023-2032), bringing total offshore wind capacity to 447 GW by the end of 2032.

But GWEC described the past few years as the “first time that the modern wind industry has been subjected to such volatile conditions” in terms of inflation and volatile commodity pricing exacerbated.”

As a result, “limited profitability has… led to underinvestment in manufacturing capacity globally, creating the likelihood of supply chain bottlenecks post-2026,” it added.

Several projects were abandoned or postponed recently across the globe because of low profitability, GWEC said, citing Denmark-based Orsted’s project in Vietnam, Sweden-headquartered Vattenfall’s Boreas project in the UK, and US-based Avangrid’s projects in the US.

Current targets for carbon neutrality, cited by GWEC, suggest that wind power must generate one-fifth of the world’s electricity by 2030 and two-thirds by 2050, using on- and offshore wind turbines.

“To meet the increasing offshore wind ambitions globally, massive investments are needed to build up the offshore wind supply chain and deploy projects at the pace and scale needed,” GWEC said.

What’s in it for the commodity sector?

Offshore wind turbines are an end-use market for steel that goes into foundations and nacelles (boxes for turbine elements), copper for cables, molybdenum for gears and neodymium for permanent rare earth magnets.

“The offshore wind industry consumes about a conservative 220 tonnes of neodymium-praseodymium oxide (NdPr) per GW of installed capacity,” said Anne-Marie Sylvestre, a sustainability consultant for the rare earths industry and former global lead sustainability at Australian producer Lynas Rare Earths.

Sylvestre estimates that NdPr content in the current installed 64.3GW is around 14,150 tonnes.

“If the GWEC’s estimate of 380 GW of new offshore wind installations by 2032 is correct, then the industry will require about 83,600 tonnes of NdPr over the next decade,” she added.

Brussels-based Rare Earth Industry Association (REIA) estimates that the industry would require an average of 30,000 tonnes of rare-earth permanent magnets per year, or a total of almost 290,000 tonnes between now and 2032, based on the GWEC report.

REIA’s estimate is based on capacity of 28 GW being installed each year from 2023 to 2027. This amount then doubles to approximately 52 GW per year from 2028 to 2032.

Current annual consumption of neodymium is around 60,000 tonnes, according to Fastmarkets’ estimates.

“The data indicates that the demand for these magnets will more than double every five years, not accounting for competing demand from onshore-wind installations and electric vehicle (EV) deployment,” REIA said.

Sylvestre also said that her estimates did not consider the additional demand from onshore wind turbines, which use neodymium magnets but in smaller amounts.

Rare earth magnet supply

“Apart from current expanding production capacity, I see recycled NdPr extracted from offshore end-of-life wind turbines as a significant NdPr source within a 10-year timeframe,” Sylvestre said.

She added that there is no reliable method to recycle these materials at present, mainly due to safety, economic, and technical hurdles in retrieving and reusing the magnets.

But recycling is a considerably faster approach compared to initiating entirely new projects, and new developments might potentially reduce the quantities of rare earths needed in magnets, Sylvestre said.

Policy and regulatory risks to consider

Other risks – apart from volatile commodity prices – that GWEC highlights include regulatory, such as long timelines to get leases on seabed land; technical risks since long-delayed projects might get stuck with old technologies; and policy risks.

“With China controlling more than 70% of the global market share for gearboxes, generators, slewing bearings, castings, forgings, towers and flanges, restrictive trade policies proposed by the EU and the US are almost certain to create bottlenecks,” the GWEC said.

“But the US is leading efforts to diversify or ‘de-risk’ away from China. And China has shown recently in gallium and germanium that it is prepared to act to restrict its exports,” it added.

Caroline Messecar in London contributed to this article.

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