Why the success of the world's energy transition hinges on copper supplies

The red metal is the best conductor of electricity after silver but its weak price is a warning sign that supply restrictions loom

A worker at Chile's Chuquicamata copper mine. Chile and Peru dominate global copper mining, while the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Mexico are also important resource holders. AFP
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The health-conscious know the importance of trace elements in vitamins for their overall health and well-being.

Similarly, copper is essential to the vitality of the world economy — increasingly so, with the turn to new energy systems. The trace element's weak price is a warning sign, both for immediate prospects and for the long-term energy transition.

Copper is the best conductor of electricity among common materials — only silver, which is much more expensive, is superior.

It is, therefore, a vital component of electric wiring and motors. As electricity rises from 20 per cent of final energy use to 50 per cent after mid-century, the need for the red metal will grow.

A battery vehicle needs about two-and-a-half times as much copper as a traditional car.

Long-distance transmission will be needed to bring electricity from remote wind, solar and hydroelectric sites. Stronger local grids will be required to accommodate electric vehicle charging and rooftop solar installations.

These factors mean that current demand of about 25 million tonnes a year will almost double by 2035. It is no exaggeration to say that the success of the energy transition hinges on whether we can supply enough copper.

Yet despite this importance, copper does not feature on either the EU or US lists of “critical minerals”.

It is very different from materials such as lithium, cobalt and rare earths.

It is already a large global market — not as big as steel, but bigger than aluminium, and worth almost $300 billion last year. By comparison, cobalt was worth less than $10bn and the much-hyped rare earths below $3bn.

Unlike many of these speciality minerals, copper has few good substitutes. Aluminium can replace it in some applications, such as transmission wires, but is less conductive, bulkier, more energy-intensive to produce and needs more maintenance.

Most of copper's uses today are not energy transition-related, unlike the emerging niche minerals. And some other useful energy transition metals — including silver, gold, nickel and tellurium — are by-products or found in association with copper.

The metal the Romans called cuprum took its name from the island of Cyprus, and has been dug for extensively since antiquity.

There is no shortage of resources, but new mines exploit ores that contain less than 1 per cent of copper. Compare this to the 19th century, when rich deposits held up to 10 per cent of the metal.

Mining, grinding and processing so much waste material raises costs, energy and water use, and environmental disruption.

Chile and Peru dominate global copper mining, while the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia are also important. Mexico is another significant resource holder.

In Latin American countries, mines are frequently blocked by workers’ strikes and by protesters seeking greater community benefits and environmental restoration.

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The DRC and Zambia have suffered insecurity and operational problems. Power and water shortages affect many sites.

Last month, Newmont delayed plans for a major new copper and gold mine in Peru.

The conflict in Ukraine does not help. Russia is not a top copper miner but it does produce about 5 per cent of the global total, with two big new mines under development, but exports and output growth could be hampered by sanctions.

The US and European governments have strategic goals to boost self-sufficiency and green energy.

Yet, mining locations in Europe and the US are hampered by community and environmental opposition. One major project in Minnesota is held up by pollution concerns, while another in the state was effectively cancelled in January.

Even under favourable conditions, new mines take a decade or more to open and forecast demand will require hundreds of billions of dollars of investment, while capital expenditure by leading miners is at barely half its peak levels of 2012-2013 after a decade of overspending and poor financial returns.

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It is already a large global market – not as big as steel, but bigger than aluminium, and worth almost $300 billion last year
Robin Mills, chief executive of Qamar Energy

Recycling is already an important source of copper and will grow further as government and corporate attention rises, the stock of old equipment expands and shortages make it more profitable.

But it will still be insufficient to meet longer-term demand.

This looming tightness is not registering in the market today. Copper prices enjoyed a strong run-up from $2 per pound in the depths of the pandemic to $4.85 in May last year.

But they slumped in April and again in June and now languish at around $3.40. This is well above the typical price of the 1990s, but, allowing for inflation, only about the average for the boom era of 2003 onwards.

Why are prices relatively weak while the supply-demand outlook appears so strained? China is, as so often, the key commodity country.

It accounts for about 10 per cent of world copper mining, but around half of smelting and use. This concentration is a longer-term concern for Beijing’s global adversaries.

For now, though, China’s property slump, its continuing Covid lockdowns and more general concerns over global economic conditions, are keeping prices down.

This further deters investment in new mining. A squeeze on supplies appearing in the late 2020s and growing most acute in the mid-2030s is not enough to engage attention today.

Could this be an opportunity for the Middle East?

The likelihood and timing of “net-zero carbon” pathways, diminishing fossil-fuel demand, need to be weighed against potential copper shortages.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles, at least for heavy freight, might be preferable to copper-hungry battery-powered lorries.

In the GCC, Saudi Arabia and Oman have substantial reserves and are developing new mines. The region’s abundance of low-cost, low-carbon gas and electricity could make it a good location for copper smelting, refining and recycling.

The world currently feels the pain of fossil-fuel supply falling short of demand. Electric vehicles, batteries and renewable energies are supposed to be the solution.

Governments and companies must diagnose the problem correctly — and ensure the patient gets enough copper.

Robin M Mills is chief executive of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

Updated: October 10, 2022, 1:26 PM
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