Running Out of Copper: A New Crisis for Renewable Energy?

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A University of Michigan study reveals that the U.S. cannot mine copper quickly enough to meet the demands of transitioning to renewable energy as outlined in the Inflation Reduction Act. Electric vehicles and grid upgrades require significantly more copper than is currently produced. The study suggests that policymakers consider the limitations of copper availability and proposes focusing on hybrid vehicles as a more achievable goal, while also addressing the global need for copper in developing essential infrastructure.

The University of Michigan study highlights a significant shortfall in copper production necessary to meet U.S. renewable energy targets, suggesting a shift towards manufacturing hybrid vehicles and a reevaluation of copper allocation to balance both domestic and global needs.

According to a study from the University of Michigan, the mining of copper is not progressing quickly enough to meet the demands set by current U.S. policy guidelines for transitioning the country’s electricity and vehicle infrastructure to renewable energy.

The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law in 2022, calls for 100% of cars manufactured to be electric vehicles by 2035. But an electric vehicle requires three to five times as much copper as an internal combustion engine vehicle—not to mention the copper required for upgrades to the electric grid.

“A normal Honda Accord needs about 40 pounds of copper. The same battery electric Honda Accord needs almost 200 pounds of copper. Onshore wind turbines require about 10 tons of copper, and in offshore wind turbines, that amount can more than double,” said Adam Simon, U-M professor of earth and environmental studies. “We show in the paper that the amount of copper needed is essentially impossible for mining companies to produce.”

The study examined 120 years of global data from copper mining companies, and calculated how much copper the U.S. electricity infrastructure and fleet of cars would need to upgrade to renewable energy. It found that renewable energy’s copper needs would outstrip what copper mines can produce at the current rate. The study, led by Simon and Cornell University researcher Lawrence Cathles, was published by the International Energy Forum and discussed in a webinar, “Copper mining and vehicle electrification.”

The shortfall is in part because of the permitting process for mining companies. The average time between discovering a new copper mineral deposit and getting a permit to build a mine is about 20 years, according to Simon.

Mining Challenges and Global Demand

Copper is mined by more than 100 companies operating mines on six continents. The researchers drew data for global copper production back to the year 1900, which told them the global amount of copper mining companies had produced over 120 years. They then modeled how much copper mining companies are likely to produce for the rest of the century.

The researchers found that between 2018 and 2050, the world will need to mine 115% more copper than has been mined in all of human history up until 2018 just to meet “business as usual.” This would meet our current copper needs and support the developing world without considering the green energy transition.

To meet the copper needs of electrifying the global vehicle fleet, as many as six new large copper mines must be brought online annually over the next several decades. About 40% of the production from new mines will be required for electric vehicle-related grid upgrades.

“I’m a huge fan of the Inflation Reduction Act. I think it’s fantastic. I’ve got solar panels, batteries, and an electric vehicle,” Simon said. “I’m fully on board with the energy transition. However, it needs to be done in a way that’s achievable.”

Instead of fully electrifying the U.S. fleet of vehicles, the researchers suggest focusing on manufacturing hybrid vehicles.

“We are hoping the study gets picked up by policymakers who should consider copper as the limiting factor for the energy transition, and to think about how copper is allocated,” Simon said. “We know, for example, that a Toyota Prius actually has a slightly better impact on climate than a Tesla. Instead of producing 20 million electric vehicles in the United States and globally, 100 million battery electric vehicles each year, would it be more feasible to focus on building 20 million hybrid vehicles?”

The Broader Impact of Copper Scarcity

The researchers also point out that copper will be needed for developing countries to build infrastructure, such as building an electric grid for the approximately 1 billion people who don’t yet have access to electricity; to provide clean water drinking facilities for the approximately 2 billion people who don’t have access to clean water; and wastewater treatment for the 4 billion people who don’t have access to sanitation facilities.

“Renewable energy technologies, clean water, wastewater, electricity—it cannot exist without copper. So we then end up with tension between how much copper we need to build infrastructure in less developed countries versus how much copper we need for the energy transition,” Simon said.

“We think our study highlights that significant progress can be made to reduce emissions in the United States. However, the current—almost singular—emphasis on downstream manufacture of renewable energy technologies cannot be met by upstream mine production of copper and other metals without a complete mindset change about mining among environmental groups and policymakers.”

6 Comments on "Running Out of Copper: A New Crisis for Renewable Energy?"

  1. Clyde Spencer | May 22, 2024 at 1:10 pm | Reply

    “A normal Honda Accord needs about 40 pounds of copper. The same battery electric Honda Accord needs almost 200 pounds of copper.”

    What is missing is how much a hybrid requires. Is it 240 pounds?

  2. Other sources suggest EVs only use half the copper claimed in this article. Copper can be replaced by aluminum and the excessive use of the metal in wind farms is a more promising tactic than building hybrids insted of EVs. Who sponsored this study?

    • Clyde Spencer | May 23, 2024 at 11:04 am | Reply

      Did you read the article? The study was discussed in a webinar held by The International Energy Forum (IEF), the world’s largest international organization of energy ministers from 73 countries and includes both producing and consuming nations. You can download the original report following the link in the above article, wherein, you will find “ACS was funded by U.S. National Science Foundation grants EAR 2214119 and 2233425.”

      Aluminum is not a universal replacement for copper, largely because of its much higher electrical resistance, but also because it tends to oxidize, creating an even higher resistance at junction box connections. It has generally been banned in new home construction wiring because of numerous house fires in the 1970s.

  3. Blah, blah, blah. Michigan, huh? If I recall, that is also the home of several large auto companies, coincidentally also dragging their feet on EV adoption.
    This article reeks of big auto and fossil fuel industry bias. Prius better than a Tesla…I don’t think so.
    Clean water for developing countries? WTF? Just in case you didn’t believe their (flawed) logical argument, they throw in the emotional appeal as a final hail Mary. “Please…do it for the starving people in Africa”.

  4. “The researchers also point out that copper will be needed for developing countries to build infrastructure, such as building an electric grid for the approximately 1 billion people who don’t yet have access to electricity”

    Not impressed. A researcher should know that the grid (and much of the housing wiring) uses aluminum conductors which are in NO short supply. Doubling grid capacity can be done for half the price of a new transmission line by replacing the steel core (which sags under heat) with carbon fiber and increasing the cross section of aluminum wiring. This actually tightens under heat load. As well as the increase in condustor, temperature measurements (balls) reporting to the grid control allows for lowering the ‘margin of safety’ as you have a knowledge of the actual temperature of the line under load.

    “TS Conductor’s solution is to replace the steel with a carbon fiber core, which is stronger and about 80% lighter. The change means the core can be thinner and the product can pack more strands of aluminum in the same size conductor. Huang says his product can carry as much as three times more electricity than today’s wires.”

    “In an average 2100 sq foot single-family home, you will find about:
    195 pounds – building wire
    151 pounds – plumbing tube, fittings, valves
    24 pounds – plumbers’ brass goods
    47 pounds – built-in appliances
    12 pounds – builders hardware
    10 pounds – other wire and tube”

    so are we going to stop building houses?

  5. Clyde. Also note, that while in the 1970’s unsuitable outlets did have a problem, we solved that problem shortly after and use of aluminum for house wiring is common. No danger with Cu/AL approved connections. And ‘argument by authority’ is pathetically weak.

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