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Europe policy 'weak' on rare-earth metals

EUROPE: Green European member of parliament (MEP) Reinhard Butikofer has expressed concerns about a draft European Commission policy document aimed at securing the supply of non-energy raw materials to the EU.

The document, to be published this month, could jeopardise the future of the EU wind industry if it fails to adequately address the supply of rare-earth materials needed for the development of the next-generation large turbines.

While welcoming the commission's focus on the topic of raw materials, Butikofer says in some areas the draft, which he has seen, is weak and not ambitious enough.

The main rare-earth metals used in wind turbines, neodymium and praseodymium, are used in direct-drive permanent magnets in generators, which are being used more often in installed wind turbines.

China is by far the biggest supplier of the metals. But last summer China's commerce ministry cut export quotas for rare-earth elements by 72% for the rest of 2010 and newspaper China Daily reported in October that 2011 quotas would be slashed by 30%.

The EU must therefore produce a robust strategy to ensure such moves do not harm its growing renewables industry. For the moment, the commission appears to be struggling to develop a proper strategy, with EU industry commissioner Antonio Tajani postponing its presentation to the European Parliament twice.

"Raw materials are the bread and butter of our industries, and many of the critical raw materials are particularly important not only for immediate competitiveness but also for moving towards a low-carbon, high-tech economy," says Butikofer, who is vice-president of the Greens/European Free Alliance (EFA) group in the parliament and its spokesperson on industrial affairs.

Butikofer believes that, to ensure the short-term availability of these materials, the EU should offer China access to environmental technologies in exchange for a steady supply of raw materials.

Disposal woes

Butikofer also says he has particular concerns about the promotion of recycling. He says he wants to see recycling strategies being put into place to ensure that when products using permanent magnets reach the end of their life, the magnets are not discarded.

The EU's Joint Research Centre has commissioned a study by consultants Oakdene Hollins to examine to what degree the supply of rare-earth materials could affect the development of renewable energy across the EU.

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