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NREL: Stronger Supply Chain Links to a Clean Energy Future

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Workers halfway around the world harvest rare minerals for electric vehicle batteries. Overseas factories crank out solar panels. Cargo trucks, trains, and ships move massive wind turbine blades hundreds of miles.

Goals to shift to a net-zero-carbon emissions economy in the next few decades will demand rapid and exponential deployment of clean energy technologies that are made and transported sustainably. This will trigger big changes in supply chains—where companies buy materials and parts and how they get to and from factories.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and researchers at its National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are working with partners to make sure that the country’s manufacturers have the materials, components, infrastructure, and other resources needed to meet ambitious emissions-reduction targets—while making the production of renewable energy technologies as clean as their operation.

“In order to slow the advance of climate change, the nation and the world will have to speed up the manufacturing of clean energy technologies,” said NREL Energy Systems Integration Research Advisor Jill Engel-Cox. “At the same time, we need to make the entire cradle-to-grave process of producing, deploying, and decommissioning those technologies equally sustainable.”

Supply chains are only as strong as their weakest links. Reliance on imports, paired with untapped domestic manufacturing capabilities and the growing need for skilled workers, can make the clean energy industry vulnerable to production shortages, trade disruptions, and natural disasters.

In response to an executive order and in consultation with the White House and other federal agencies, DOE released earlier this year a comprehensive federal strategy to strengthen America’s clean energy supply chains, accompanied by 13 topic-specific deep-dive studies. Dozens of actions outlined in the strategy report aim to reinvigorate domestic manufacturing, keep costs in check for American families and businesses, create new jobs, and more equitably distribute clean energy benefits—all while fighting climate change. The reports focus on materials, components, and systems used to produce, distribute, run on, and store clean power from sustainable solar, wind, hydroelectric, nuclear, and hydrogen energy sources.

Tsisilile Igogo, a researcher from NREL on detail to DOE’s Office of Policy, was tapped to steer the entire series of clean energy supply chain reports and generate comprehensive policy options. NREL analysts led five of the deep-dive studies, which provided insights about policy actions needed to strengthen America’s energy supply chains. Authors from other national laboratories, DOE, and the private sector were responsible for the remaining eight deep-dive reports in the series.

In parallel, DOE has created a new Office of Manufacturing and Energy Supply Chains (MESC) to match the pace of American innovation with the strong and secure supply chains needed to modernize the nation’s energy infrastructure and support the clean energy transition. The recent series of reports and establishment of the MESC office are both initial steps in implementing supply chain efforts that dovetail with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), and CHIPS and Science Act measures to modernize the U.S. energy infrastructure, address climate change, spur economic growth, and boost national security as the economy transitions to a clean energy future.

NREL’s contributions to these recent initiatives represent just a fraction of NREL research and development (R&D) related to clean energy manufacturing and supply chains. For more than a decade, DOE, other government agencies, and industry partners have turned to NREL analysis and R&D experts to decrease the carbon footprint of manufacturing materials, technologies, and processes. Grounded in science and engineering, plus deep and broad understanding of industry priorities and issues, these innovative whole-system approaches to supply chain research are supported by models, tools, and facilities found only at NREL.

Meeting Unprecedented Demands and Challenges
The global market for clean energy materials is expected to increase exponentially in the coming decades—jumping by 400% for some materials, up to a mind-boggling 4,000% in the extreme case of lithium and graphite used in electric vehicle batteries. At the same time, a small number of countries control a large share of certain raw material reserves and processing operations, along with production facilities for components critical to clean energy. In addition, human rights and environmental conditions at these overseas operations often do not meet U.S. and international sustainability standards.

The complex manufacturing supply chain includes a vast global network of materials procurement, processing, production, materials recovery, infrastructure, and logistics operations. Recent events have raised awareness of supply chain vulnerabilities in relation to energy as well as consumer goods, construction materials, and other products.

Those challenges were put in particularly high relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, shortages in semiconductors severely hampered U.S. auto production. In turn, the reduced number of vehicles coming off assembly lines negatively affected business profits, hiring patterns, and prices on car lots.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, semiconductor shortages severely hampered U.S. auto production, reducing the number of vehicles coming off assembly lines and impacting business profits, hiring patterns, and car prices.

The new DOE supply chain initiatives and NREL’s larger body of research are intended to help minimize risks associated with expanding U.S. clean energy market share and maximize benefits to the largest possible number of Americans. Boosting U.S. materials production and manufacturing capacity will protect the clean energy industry from supply chain disruptions and their domino effects on businesses, workers, and consumers.

“The U.S. has done a great job investing in innovation. Now it is time to put the same effort into bringing these American innovations to market, so that we’re prepared to meet anticipated growth in demand for clean energy,” said Igogo, who is acting as DOE Office of Policy lead supply chain coordinator. “That starts by increasing support for technology demonstration, deployment, and manufacturing. Passage of the BIL, IRA, and CHIPS Act are significant steps, providing policy tools to move the U.S. in that direction.”

As part of that, DOE is working to reverse a centuries-old, worldwide legacy of energy-related development’s disproportionate impact on underserved communities.

“We need to make sure no one is left behind in the clean energy transition,” Igogo said. “This means that in every link of the supply chain we’re weighing social, economic, and environmental impacts on underserved communities within the U.S. and beyond its borders.”

Supply chain stages include materials extraction, refining, processing, fabrication, assembly, transportation, installation, and decommissioning.

Mapping Strategies To Kick-Start U.S. Manufacturing
Igogo was responsible for overseeing development of the recent clean energy supply chain studies and writing the DOE strategy report based on analysis findings from NREL researchers and others. The report identifies seven key areas for boosting supply chain resilience and lays out 62 policy actions to strengthen the clean energy supply chain that will require coordination, collaboration, and support from communities, government, and industry.

In addition to strategies designed to grow the market for clean energy and build a greater knowledge base for decision-making in this area, Igogo’s report maps out approaches to kick-start U.S. manufacturing through:

Increasing availability of critical materials
Expanding domestic manufacturing capacity
Developing a skilled workforce
Cultivating diverse, reliable, and socially responsible global supply chains
The studies also examine strategies to recycle and recover materials to feed domestic supply chains while minimizing their carbon footprint.

This high-level set of policy recommendations was delivered from insights provided by the analysis presented in the topic-focused deep-dive reports, complemented by dialogue with experts and public comments gathered by DOE in a formal request for information.

Recent reports map out approaches to kick-start U.S. manufacturing with diverse, reliable, and socially responsible global supply chains.

“Following our lab’s approach to research across the board, the deep-dive supply chain reports do not endorse a particular policy approach,” said Engel-Cox, who coordinated laboratory activity on the reports led by NREL authors. “Our role is to provide the hard data and neutral analysis needed for officials at DOE and elsewhere to make balanced and informed policy decisions.”

The DOE deep-dive reports used analysis to explore challenges and opportunities related to specific technologies, as well as crosscutting topics. The reports led by NREL authors examined supply chains for solar photovoltaic (PV), wind power, energy storage, semiconductor, and fuel cell and electrolyzer technologies.

The NREL-led reports look at supply chain stages including materials extraction, refining, processing, fabrication, assembly, transportation, installation, and decommissioning. Analysts examined the potential impact of new trade policies, tax incentives, and financing options, as well as the possibility that additional research and innovation could uncover new approaches to strengthen supply chains.

NREL researchers also contributed to the deep-dive series’ report on platinum group metals. Each of the reports in the supply chain series involved collaboration with scores of experts from national laboratories, industry, and government agencies.

See the side story for more details on the NREL-led reports.

Taking a Full-System Approach To Greening the Supply Chain
Most global manufacturing relies on fossil fuels, and production of clean energy technology is no exception. A large body of NREL research focuses on understanding the implications of the current supply chain, plus anticipating future needs and challenges.

Much of this ties into the laboratory’s efforts to catalyze development of a circular economy for clean energy—extending the lifespan of materials, components, and products while reducing waste, conserving resources, and boosting efficiency. Ultimately, this approach will make it possible to manufacture goods that use less raw material and energy, last longer, and stay out of landfills through reuse and recycling.

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