Wind turbine-makers should get into mining to secure rare-earths

Wind turbine companies relying on direct-drive models need to get more involved in the rare-earth metals industry if they want to manage price spikes and the scarcity of permanent magnets used in generators, says Gareth Hatch, co-founder of specialist analyst Technology Metals Research.

Hatch says the price of neodymium, the key rare metal used in producing the magnets, has gone up by a factor of ten over the past 12 months, while the magnets have risen from about $40-$50 per kg to $250-300.

Neodymium price rises have been higher outside China, but even in the Asian giant, where supplies are currently mined they have increased sharply since the beginning of February — and magnet prices have also shot up.

Crucially, the availability of magnets has deteriorated, and lead times have gone up from eight to 12 weeks to 20-25, Hatch says.

Availability is a worse problem outside China, with some analysts saying Chinese wind turbine manufacturers such as Goldwind are benefiting from “set aside” policies that protect their supply. “Even these companies are suffering,” says Hatch. “They get access from a capacity point of view but they are not necessarily getting a lower price.”

Hatch says the latest spike in rare-earth prices is partly due to speculation. Some buyers in China are acquiring the material and taking it off the market in the expectation of higher prices ahead. He also points to growing surcharges slapped on to Chinese product by exporters seeking to take advantage of quota restrictions, and a growing “grey market” of non-authorised shipments.

The recent move by Siemens — which has based its latest 3MW and 6MW turbine designs on magnet-hungry direct-drive technology — to form a joint venture with Australian-based rare-earth miner Lynas is a “milestone,” according to Hatch. Siemens will hold a 55% stake in the venture.

“The fact that the leading company with a direct-drive design has decided to go upstream shows just how desperate the situation is,” he says. Hatch notes that Lynas will be the first company to get a rare-earth mine on-stream.

Lynas owns the mining rights at Western Australia’s Mount Weld, which holds one of the world’s richest deposits of rare-earth metals. It is also building a controversial rare-earths processing plant in Malaysia, which will be the world’s largest such facility and the first opened outside China in nearly three decades.

Lynas claims its $230m Malaysian plant — which has been the focus of protests from residents due to radiation fears — will be completed “later this year” but full production is unlikely to commence before late 2012.

Hatch says there are still outstanding questions, such as whether Siemens will make magnets itself or will direct material to a magnet maker through a partnership. Lynas’ mine also does not produce Dysprosium, the other key rare earth in permanent magnets. Dysprosium prices have increased even more than neodymium recently.

However, Hatch recommends that other direct-drive turbine manufacturers also get involved in the rare-earths sector.

He continues to believe rare-earth prices will stabilise in the medium term, as new mining and processing capacity comes into operation outside China. However, Hatch says the turbine industry must “use its clout to affect the outcome of [rare-earth] projects’’, if it wants to avoid volatility. The industry is likely to become the largest end-user constituency for neodymium in the next few years, as more direct-drive models enter large-scale production, he points out.

A number of companies are rolling out new multi-megawatt direct-drive turbines, including Alstom, GE, Nordex, XEMC, Samsung and Hyundai, but not Vestas.

“Given the current situation, with rare-earth prices skyrocketing I am happy we have geared solutions,” Vestas chief executive Ditlev Engel tells Recharge.

Ben Backwell, London

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