Extremely strong magnets are crucial for the large wind turbine ambitions at sea in the Netherlands and Europe. The magnets make wind turbines more efficient and easier to maintain, but almost all of them come from China. There is still too little attention to this dependence in the current policy, experts and the trade association for the wind sector believe.
The plans for offshore wind are enormous: thousands and thousands of wind turbines are to be built in the North Sea in the coming decades – most of the type with magnets. These magnets are also crucial for, among other things, electric cars, so analysts expect demand to at least triple in the coming decades.
Western dependence is not new, but it is becoming increasingly urgent. Not only because of the increasing demand for critical raw materials for the energy transition. “There is also a structural deterioration in relations with China, as we saw in relations with Russia from 2007,” says Joris Teer, China analyst at The Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS).
“There are sometimes up to 12,000 kg of magnets in such a turbine,” says Maarten de Bekker from a company near Eindhoven, where they import neodymium magnets, among other things for wind turbines. “And if China stops supplying, our stock will be empty in a few months.”
“If Chinese suppliers stop, we have a big problem”
The magnets are made of neodymium, one of the seventeen so-called rare earth metals. ‘Rare’ is a bit misleading, because they can be found in many places. But mining, and especially the processing that goes with it, is complex and polluting, so many countries prefer not to venture into it. “China has therefore – in combination with lower prices – taken over the supply chain in recent decades,” says Benjamin Sprecher, industrial ecologist at TU Delft. “So now more than 90 percent of all neodymium magnets come from China.”
“The Netherlands must be aware of the strategic position that China has taken with this,” says Jan Vos, chairman of NWEA, the wind sector’s association. “It’s not happening enough at the moment. There’s hardly been any policy to date, that needs to change.”
In 2020, the European Commission already mapped the security of supply for critical raw materials. The rare earth elements (LREE and HREE, the red lines) fall in the highest risk category:
HCSS asked experts from industry, government, academia and think tanks about the likelihood of China imposing a commodity export boycott against Europe. “They estimate that chance at more than 50 percent in the next ten years,” says Teer. “The US is taking far-reaching measures to keep the Chinese chip industry small. Will China let it stay that way? The Chinese government has already merged a number of large earth metal companies into one company under the government in 2021. You can see that a tool is being made that can may be used
“When it comes to addiction, we got an important signal in 2010,” says René Kleijn, an industrial ecologist at Leiden University. “Then China came into conflict with Japan, after which China, among other things, limited the export of rare earth metals. Then you saw that those raw materials were used as weapons. You can compare it to how it is now with Russian gas.”
Despite the warnings that have been sounded for some time, Europe only now seems to be really waking up. The Netherlands is working on a raw materials strategy for the end of this year, Europe announced a law on critical raw materials this year. Part of the plans is, for example, that around 20 percent of the rare earth metals in 2030 must come from Europe itself.
The stocks are there, but the plans are not yet very concrete. It takes ten to twenty years to build a new mine, and plans often face local opposition. “There is barely a shovel in the ground,” says Kleijn. “Everybody wants a Tesla, but nobody wants a mine in their backyard. There’s some movement, but it’s not much yet.”
We depend on China, but they also depend on the rest of the world.
Another possibility is to make agreements with non-European countries for the supply of raw materials. And you can also build turbines without magnets, but then the industry has to change. “It takes extra time, and then the goals for the energy transition are put in jeopardy,” says Kleijn. Wind turbine builder Siemens Gamesa says other technology is available, but “for strategic reasons” would not say how long a switch would take.
In addition, the (Dutch) policy places great emphasis on circularity – reusing magnets that we already have. “It’s important,” says Sprecher. “But you have to build the wind turbines first, then wait twenty years, and then you can theoretically be circular. The idea that you solve this problem with circularity is actually nonsense.”
At the same time, China will not just stop exports, experts believe. “We depend on China,” says Kleijn. “But they also from the rest of the world. At the same time, I am concerned that very little is happening in Europe, because there is a great need for that energy transition.”