The UK’s ability to develop its own critical minerals supply chains to safeguard the future of British industries "risks being undermined by a lack of capacity in the electricity grid".
A new study from Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership looks at how grid constraints in mineral-rich areas like Cornwall will hold back the development of strategic national resources vital to a raft of British industries, from car making to defence.
According to the study, Cornwall alone could meet more than half of the UK's 2030 demand for lithium, which is an important component of electric vehicle batteries and the transition to net zero.
The South West region is also rich in other critical minerals, including tin and tungsten, thanks to its rugged granite geology. And it is potentially earmarked for a multi-billion pound electric car battery plant for Jaguar Land Rover in Somerset, with a deal reported to be imminent.
In line with government demands in the UK Critical Minerals Strategy to accelerate home-grown capacity, industry leaders are calling for the infrastructure to be put in place to power a domestic critical minerals industry.
In particular they want power from planned floating windfarms in the Celtic Sea to be landed directly in Cornwall. Ministers see such an industry as vital to safeguarding stocks in the face of continued strained relations with China, which the Government says is the biggest producer of 12 out of the 18 minerals assessed as critical to the UK.
Glenn Caplin-Grey, chief executive of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), is among those lobbying for change.
He said: “Cornwall is vital to delivering the Government’s Critical Minerals Strategy but has one of the most constrained grid networks in the UK. We have some of the best natural resources in the world including wind, solar and geothermal. But renewable energy generators have been told they have to wait more than 10 years for a grid connection.
“Meanwhile we have a minerals industry desperate for clean power so they can produce the raw materials like lithium and tin that are vital to UK industry and the energy transition. It should be a virtuous circle but feels more like a stuck record. We are encouraging both the National Grid and The Crown Estate to consider the wider strategic requirements of our region in the UK’s national interest.”
Ministers have also refreshed the UK’s Critical Minerals Strategy, which says large swathes of the UK economy are reliant on critical minerals. It detailed how the UK needs lithium, cobalt and nickel for batteries, silicon, tin and gallium for electronics, and rare earth metals for electric motors – all vital in the transition to net zero and decarbonising the UK power sector by the 2035 target, and the phasing out of new fossil-fuel cars by 2030.
Companies like Cornish Lithium have shared concerns that the pace at which they can harvest lithium from granite and deep geothermal brines risks being impaired by a lack of grid capacity.
Mike King, Cornish Lithium’s South West business development manager, said: “The pace at which the development of critical minerals in Cornwall can reach their full potential is dependent on the availability of renewable electricity. Cornwall’s critical minerals including lithium and tin are of national strategic importance, lie at the heart of the UK Government’s net zero policy and, as part of the UK battery supply chain, are vital to the future of automotive manufacturing in this country.
“Establishing long term power purchase agreements with renewable electricity generators is an essential component of the sustainable development of lithium in Cornwall. So we support calls to bring floating wind power ashore in Cornwall allied to investment to strengthen the network to give critical minerals industry the clean power it needs to further accelerate development.”
The LEP also said that increasing the percentage of renewable power on the grid in Cornwall would "slash" the carbon emission per tonne of lithium carbonate produced, which is a key ESG measure for potential global investors and "necessary to hit looming EU regulations on battery production".
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