MAY 20, 2024 7:44 AM PDT

Copper Can't Be Mined Fast Enough to Supply Green Energy Demands

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Climate change is bearing down on us; temperature records are constantly being made and broken, and severe storms and flooding have been wreaking havoc in many parts of the world. In an attempt to lower the amount of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere, The Inflation Reduction Act, which was made law in 2022, says all new cars must be electric vehicles by 2035. However, an electric car needs three to five times more copper than a standard internal combustion vehicle. Copper will also be needed to upgrade the electrical supply grid so that all of these electric vehicles can be powered. However, a new study by University of Michigan researchers has determined that copper cannot be mined fast enough to supply these demands.

A copper mine / Image credit: Pixabay

“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 ten tons of copper, and in offshore wind turbines, that amount can more than double,” explained Adam Simon, a University of Michigan 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.”

This research relied on 120 years of data from copper mining companies that operate around the world. This data was used to model future supplies. The investigators also calculated the copper that will be necessary for the electrical transition and upgrades. This work showed that between 2018 and 2050, the world will have to produce 115 percent more copper than people have mined in our entire history up until 2018, simply to maintain the status quo. This is even before additional energy transitions are made. The needs of renewable energy will totally exhaust the copper supply. These findings have been reported by the International Energy Forum.

The permit process for mining companies is part of the bottleneck. It's estimated that about two decades elapse between the discovery of new copper deposits and the mining of that location. However, mining is also a very dangerous industry, and workers in vulnerable areas must still be considered during the energy transition.

The researchers estimated that six large, new mines or more must be opened every single year over the next few decades to produce sufficient copper to meet demand.

“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.”

The study authors suggested that creating more hybrid vehicles may be a better approach. Personally, I think it should also be easier, cheaper, and safer for people to use bicycles and mass transit as well as changing the vehicles that people drive.

“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. A Prius, for example, seems to be a bit better for the climate than a Tesla. So instead of focusing only on making new electric vehicles in the US and around the world, it may be a better idea to make more hybrids.

There are also other people to think about. There are still two billion individuals who cannot access clean drinking water, and four billion who cannot access reliable sanitation. The electrical needs of these people must also be considered too.

“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.

Right now, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the world's second largest source of copper, according to Statista, and books such as Cobalt Red have highlighted that massive toll that mining has taken on the country.

“We think our study highlights that significant progress can be made to reduce emissions in the United States." But, Simon added, environmental advocacy groups and policymakers will have to make a "complete midset change" about mining instead of focusing solely on manufactured goods.

Sources: University of Michigan, International Energy Forum (IEF)

About the Author
Bachelor's (BA/BS/Other)
Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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