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Shifting Gears: Clean Energy, Electric Cars and Geopolitical Power

An interview with Henry Sanderson

We are living in the midst of a climate crisis, heightened international tensions and soaring energy bills. Transitioning to renewable power sources — otherwise known as ‘going green’ — seems like the only viable option. But at what cost?

I spoke to Henry Sanderson about his recent release, Volt Rush: The Winners and Losers in the Race to Go Green. A former reporter for the Financial Times and China correspondent for Bloomberg, Henry is currently Executive Editor for Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. His work addresses topics like energy economics, mining and commodity trading.

When did your interest in clean energy begin? And how did living in Hong Kong and China enrich your understanding of geopolitics?

I lived and worked in Beijing for 7 years, where I became aware of the urgent need for China and the rest of the world to decarbonise. The air pollution in Beijing was at its worst; it’s much better now, but during the ‘air apocalypse’ days you couldn’t go outside without a mask on. While watching the rapid growth of China’s car market — at this point, electric vehicle sales were still low — I suddenly realised how enormous the problem was.

When I first arrived, in 2007, there were coal mine accidents and deaths every week. I could see China heading towards an environmental apocalypse and I thought, ‘This needs to change’. I returned to London amid a growing interest in clean energy, batteries and electric cars. So, that’s the background to my book.

Volt Rush is non-fiction, but it reads like an adventure narrative (starring billionaires, cutting-edge scientists and commodity traders). Were you able to visit any of the places you write about, such as the Atacama Desert in Chile?

I visited quite a few places: Congo, Chile, China, etc. I wrote the book while working for the Financial Times, so I was lucky enough to be able to visit several different countries. However, COVID-19 hit while I was finishing it, which prevented the last few trips.

Anyone who has visited a mine will remember the sheer scale and ceaselessness of the deposits; they run for 24 hours a day. I went to an enormous cobalt copper mine, right in the middle of the Congo, with a metal processing plant that looked like something out of China’s industrial heartland.

Writing the book really opened my eyes to where supply chains begin, which is with mining. It’s not a very sexy industry, but it’s interesting to watch it come together with clean technology; we’re becoming more aware of the uneasy dependence between the two.

The narrative seems to occupy a liminal position between origin and future, and between nature and high tech. When these two worlds collide, is there a true winner or is it doomed to be a never-ending power struggle?

That’s a really good question, and there’s certainly a collision between these two worlds. I tell a story in the book about some cobalt traders who visited Volkswagen in Germany. It’s a prime example of a culture clash: VW thought they could just increase production through widgets, but mining obviously doesn’t work like that — it’s very physically demanding.

At the moment, I think miners are the winners. The natural resource side is in a fairly strong position, given the exponential demand and difficulty of increasing supply for such big projects. Elon Musk recently said that mines are almost minting cash, but I don’t think they’ll come out on top in the long term. Recycling will eventually flourish and, once the supply chain has built up, technology will improve. For instance, Apple is one of the most valuable tech companies in the world. The race to become the true electric vehicle leader will unlock all sorts of other synergies, such as apps for cars. All this is coming, further down the road.

When you identify the mining industry as a short-term winner, do you mean the corporations? I assumed that miners were still poorly paid and subject to dangerous working conditions.

There are multiple problems associated with mining, such as the impact on local communities, staff salaries and informal mining — in the Congo, some people dig for cobalt by hand. One benefit of the clean energy supply chain is that people are beginning to care about where their stuff comes from. If you’re selling green goods, you should also be conscious of working conditions.

Over the last few decades, we’ve offshored everything and turned a blind eye to supply chains. Our smartphones contain a lot of these minerals, but we just never really cared. The good news is that this is changing. One of the reasons I wrote Volt Rush is because we need to open our eyes now. Supply chains seem to be getting more attention, so conditions should improve, but there are still a lot of issues.

It’s slightly ironic, because the point of ‘going green’ is to produce renewable energy and refrain from digging up fossil fuels. But a lot of new technologies actually rely on precious metals and minerals. Won’t these resources eventually dry up? How do you envisage the ‘Race to Go Green’ ending?

The problem is not necessarily long-term; it’s here and now. We’re seeing a rapid increase in demand that the supply is struggling to meet. A shortage of raw materials increases the price of electric cars, which is a serious issue. We also need to achieve the clean energy transition quicker than past transitions in order to solve climate change.

In the long run, I think recycling will prevail. There are perhaps just enough of these resources left in the Earth’s crust, and demand for them could be reduced by future technological breakthroughs. But this decade is the real problem; we need to transform our entire energy system and replace all the vehicles on the road with electric ones. It’s a mammoth task.

So we need structural stability before renewable technologies can sustain themselves?

Precisely. We’re building from scratch, but once the infrastructure is set up, we can recycle more and reach a steady state without relying on mining. One of the advantages these metals have over fossil fuels is that many of them can be recycled, whereas coal is dug up and burned — the epitome of a wasteful system. There are benefits to green tech, but there’s a hidden supply chain that we need to pay attention to.

Transitioning to clean(er) energies is critical for the survival of humanity, but it does seem to cause a lot of conflict. Is there a more peaceful alternative, or is this a short-term sacrifice for the sake of a greener future?

I think you’re right. On top of that, there’s a major conflict happening between the US and China, which is creating a central fault line in global geopolitics. The US and the West want to decouple from China, while China is thinking about becoming more self-sufficient. This makes the clean energy transition more difficult and costly.

We could see further conflicts grow out of this rupture in globalisation. What happens if China invades Taiwan? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a nightmare for oil and gas, but our dependency on China is much greater. Russia is a fossil fuel state, but China has technological dominance, so it’s a different kettle of fish.

Your book claims that wealth and power in the 20th century depended on access to oil, whereas this century would bear witness to power shifts and different sources of conflict. Do you think this still holds true, given the impact that Russia’s war on Ukraine has had on the energy sector?

It’s interesting because I wrote this book before the war broke out. It shows that the age of fossil fuel geopolitics hasn’t gone away, but I think this could be the last hurrah. Russia has leveraged oil geopolitics this time, but I don’t think it would work again. The Chinese government is also looking very closely at this war and what it means for them: could the West retaliate? What would be the consequences?

So, we’re still relying heavily on fossil fuels, but as we transition — and this war could accelerate that process — we will shift towards clean energy. Then, we’ll see new power relations emerge. The countries I discuss in the book — such as Chile, Australia and the Democratic Republic of Congo — are now coming to the fore. There may be more international disputes as a result.

Can you offer 3 key takeaways from Volt Rush?

First, clean energy requires mining.

Second, electric cars are transforming geopolitics.

Finally, recycling is a viable long-term solution.

Both of Henry’s books are available to read on Perlego:

Two book covers, side by side

To stay up-to-date with news about the book and Henry’s other work, follow him on Twitter or visit his website.

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Lucy Hoyle

Librarian & curation guru (aka "Book Mixologist") for Perlego 🤓