Copper shortage threatens U.S. renewable energy goals

Pima County Arizona copper mine. Credit: Joyce Cory.

A recent study by the University of Michigan reveals that copper cannot be mined quickly enough to meet U.S. goals for transitioning to renewable energy and electric vehicles.

This challenge is highlighted by the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which aims for all cars made in the U.S. to be electric by 2035.

However, electric vehicles (EVs) require three to five times more copper than traditional gasoline-powered cars.

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

Onshore wind turbines require about 10 tons of copper, and offshore turbines need even more,” explains Adam Simon, a professor at the University of Michigan.

The study, published by the International Energy Forum, analyzed 120 years of global copper mining data and calculated the copper needed for the U.S. to switch to renewable energy. The results show that the current rate of copper production cannot meet these demands.

One reason for this shortfall is the lengthy permitting process for new mines. On average, it takes about 20 years from discovering a new copper deposit to obtaining permission to mine it.

Copper is mined by over 100 companies worldwide, and the study 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 to 2018 just to maintain current needs and support developing countries.

To electrify the global vehicle fleet, the world would need to open six large new copper mines every year for several decades. About 40% of the copper from these new mines would be needed for EV-related upgrades to the electric grid.

“I support the Inflation Reduction Act and the energy transition,” Simon says. “I have solar panels, batteries, and an electric vehicle. But this transition needs to be achievable.”

Instead of fully electrifying all vehicles, the researchers suggest focusing on hybrid vehicles. “We hope policymakers consider copper as a limiting factor in the energy transition,” Simon adds. “For example, a Toyota Prius has a slightly better impact on the climate than a Tesla. It might be more feasible to produce more hybrid vehicles rather than focusing solely on electric vehicles.”

The study also highlights the need for copper in developing countries. About 1 billion people still lack access to electricity, 2 billion lack clean drinking water, and 4 billion lack proper sanitation facilities.

“Renewable energy, clean water, and electricity all require copper,” Simon points out. “We need to balance the copper needed for the energy transition with the copper needed for essential infrastructure in developing countries.”

Simon concludes that significant progress can be made to reduce emissions in the U.S., but the current focus on renewable energy technologies cannot be met without rethinking how we approach mining and resource allocation.