Energy system transitions

A rapid energy transition towards a sustainable and low-carbon society is considered essential to overcome two challenges: insecurity of future fossil fuel supply and concerns over manmade climate impacts. Many suggest that such rapid and extensive transitions can be made by ample deployment of low-carbon technologies, such as renewable electricity. Some recent studies envision future energy systems, almost fully based on wind and solar energy, that can be achievable as soon as 2030 or 2050.

Rapid replacement of the current fossil fuel dominance with renewable energy technologies involves up-scaling a distinct set of small scale industries with all required supply chains within only a few decades. Constructing new energy technologies requires new material flows and entails interrelation with metal and material sectors. Renewable energy technologies are more metal intensive than current energy sources and a decarbonisation would increase demand for many materials. Thus, mining, manufacturing, and recycling industry gets increasingly tied together with the energy sector as the share of renewable energy increases.

The purpose of this project is to provide a conceptual and in-depth case studies on critical materials for low-carbon energy systems, primarily focused on renewable electricity technologies and their required materials. The term ‘criticality’ could also be seen as an assessment of risks connected to a wide array of factors such as geological occurrences, geographical concentration of deposits or production facilities, market and regulatory structures, social issues, geopolitics, environmental aspects, recycling potential, and sustainability over the full life cycle of a certain material

Quantification of required material flows caused by different growth rates of low-carbon technologies will be done and dynamically analyzed with respect to overall supply chain risks. This includes both long-term material availability risks as well as short-term effects on supply flows owing to trade or geopolitical risks. Interactions with the world economy and its predominantly fossil based energy supply are also explored with respect to sustainability and energy security.

Issues that affect material flows, like geochemical scarcity, production rate, functional substitutability, and recycling, will be considered together with geopolitical, environmental impacts, and market aspects. Many previous studies primarily considered available inventory (e.g. identified resources, economic reserves, etc.) and compared with estimated future consumption volumes without considering possible or likely production rates.

In this project, future material requirements induced by deployment of low-carbon technologies are instead dynamically modelled using annual flows. The dynamic material flow analysis is done using both aggregated and disaggregated perspectives, where the latter models the largest actors individually. This allows better handling of risks connected of uneven resource distribution or production dominated by one or a few actors.   

Furthermore, material flows will be combined with geopolitical and energy security considerations. Long-term perspectives on resource availability and distribution are important, but for rapid transitions the short-term effects of supply risk owing to geopolitical and related effects become crucial. Standardized indicators, such as Herfindahl-Hirschman Index or World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, will be used for quantification of geopolitical and energy security risks. This provides a holistic foundation to assess implications for both security and sustainability of proposed low-carbon energy transitions on global, regional, or national level.

Research Group

Project leader
Senior lecturer. Mikael Höök

Other project members

Associate senior lecturer. Magdalena Kuchler

Mr. Henrik Wachtmeister. Ph.D. student

Ms. Leena Grandell, Ph.D. student

Dept. of Earth Sciences, Uppsala University

Links and references

All results available at