Our country’s energy mix is diversifying to include more renewable energy production. 

Copper plays a vital role in the adoption of wind and solar power and the increasing use of electric vehicles. As copper demand surges, the role of recyclers will become increasingly important to help supply these growing industries.

The Role of Copper in Renewable Energy

Wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and biomass are among the renewable energy sources playing a more significant role in the energy market today.  Copper usage is on average five times more in these technologies compared with copper usage in fossil fuels and nuclear plants.     

Copper is an integral part of these sustainable energy initiatives because of its reliability, efficiency, and high-performing electrical and thermal conductivities. 

These properties are critical to the collection and distribution of energy from solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. 

Conductivity – Copper is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity because electrons move freely through the metal.

Ductility – Copper can be easily bent and shaped into wires and sheets, making it ideal for electrical uses.

Efficiency – The nature of copper makes it very efficient to deploy in electric equipment.  To achieve the same efficiency with a different material, equipment like motors, transformers and cables would need about 20 percent more of a different material compared to copper, according to the Copper Development Association. 

Recyclability – Copper is 100 percent recyclable.  It can be remade into something else and reused without losing its valuable properties.

These characteristics make copper a critical material for renewable energy sources like wind and solar power, but also for electric vehicles and energy storage.  A large amount of copper is utilized in all these technologies. 

These are some examples from the Copper Development Association:

  • A 3- megawatt wind turbine contains up to 4.7 tons of copper.  An offshore wind turbine will require even more copper.
  • There are approximately 5.5 tons per megawatt of copper in solar power systems.  The copper is included in heat exchangers, wiring and cabling.
  • Some 1.9 billion pounds of copper will be needed to power 262 gigawatts of new solar installations.
  • An internal combustion engine car uses about 48 pounds of copper, while a battery powered electric vehicle uses 183 pounds.

Copper in energy storage and electric vehicles

Copper wiring and cabling connect renewable power generation with energy storage devices, while copper in transformer switches helps deliver power at the correct voltage.  Electric vehicles rely heavily on copper for the motor coil that drives the engine in addition to the cabling required in charging stations.  Finally, the increased use of electricity will lead to the need to reinforce and expand the U.S. electrical grid.  This, again, will require the use of additional copper.    

Last year, industry analysists S&P Global issued a report summarizing the soaring demand for copper spurred by renewable energy.  “Copper is the metal of electrification and electrification is much of what the energy transition is about,” they stated.  The report forecasts copper demand doubling, to 50 million metric tons by 2035.  By 2050, they forecast demand will increase to 53 million metric tons.  To put that in perspective, the report states this is more than all the copper consumed in the world between 1900 and 2021.

Copper Shortages Anticipated

Given the large amounts of copper required for these projects, there is increasing concern that there will be copper shortages.  This is especially true given the lack of new copper mining activity.  The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. predicts a 6.5 million ton shortfall of copper by the start of the next decade.  South America is a primary source of newly mined copper, but mines in Peru and Chile are not expected to significantly increase their output for a variety of reasons.  According to the S&P Global report, new mines can take more than 10 years to get up and running, so for now, industry experts are counting on increased utilization of existing mines and ramping up recycling efforts.   

Role of Recycling to Meet Copper Demand

One of copper’s strengths is its ability to be repeatedly recycled while retaining its valuable properties.  Use of recycled copper will play a key role in meeting the growing demand.  According to the International Copper Association, more than 30 percent of the copper installed during the last decade was recycled material.  As demand for copper increases, recycled copper is expected to play a larger role in providing the valuable material needed to meet the needs of renewable energy projects.

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