Climate Tech

Copper is key to rolling out climate tech—but supply may not keep up

The “metal of electrification” could face a shortage as soon as 2025.
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· 3 min read

The electrification of everything is copper’s time to shine, but soon the metal could become harder to find.

Copper is a standout electrical conductor—only silver allows electricity to flow more easily. While it is commonly used today in electrical wiring, renewable energy sources and EVs will require much more copper than their fossil-fuel-powered predecessors. Global demand for the metal could nearly double by 2035, from ~25 million metric tons to ~50 million MT, according to a July report from S&P Global.

“If we are to meet energy-transition targets, the amount of copper that’s going to be used over the next 28 years is going to exceed all of the cumulative copper consumption that the world has seen since 1900,” John Mothersole, director of nonferrous metals economics and country risk for S&P Market Intelligence, said in a discussion about the report.

And it’s likely that supply just won’t be able to keep up.

Another shortage?

Transitioning away from fossil fuels will result in a “more mineral- and metal-intensive” energy system, Morgan Bazilian, an energy expert and director of the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines, told Emerging Tech Brew earlier this year.

Along with copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt, and manganese are all likely to face shortages in the coming years, according to BloombergNEF. And the increasing reliance on these critical materials also presents geopolitical challenges.

  • While the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law on Tuesday will likely accelerate the rollout of renewables and other tech that requires copper, the law also includes incentives for US mining companies as the Biden administration pushes to bolster domestic supply chains for climate tech like batteries.
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The growth in demand for copper isn’t expected to be quite as drastic as the scramble for other critical minerals such as lithium, but it’s still expected to pose challenges for the energy transition.

The transition to clean energy will require lots of copper, not only for EVs, solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries themselves, but also for the infrastructure needed to support them:

  • One EV requires 2.5x the amount of copper used in an internal combustion engine vehicle, according to S&P Global.
  • Compared with electricity generated from natural gas or coal, solar energy requires 2x as much copper per megawatt and offshore wind needs 5x as much.
  • Expanding electricity networks to support this transition could lead to demand for copper used in grid lines to more than double by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency.

Based on current mining trends, the copper market could fall into a shortage in 2025 and face a deficit of as much as 9.9 million metric tons in 2035, according to S&P Global. Supply from existing and planned copper mining operations will likely only meet 80% of the demand by 2030, according to the IEA. And a decline in the quality of ore deposits means it could take more energy and create more waste to extract critical minerals like copper.

Ultimately, a copper shortage could slow progress toward long-term climate goals. Even if existing mines increase production to historic highs and recycling grows, there will not be enough copper supply to meet all the demand needed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, according to S&P Global.

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