The national average gas price in the US has ticked north of five dollars a gallon. Reliance on foreign energy sources is threatening US geopolitical and normative standing internationally. Never has the imperative of energy supply – and diversified energy supply – been more obvious. Yet if current trends continue, the US shortage of critical energy inputs risks only growing more acute in the years ahead; with the world on the verge of an energy transition, the US is failing to invest in upstream production necessary for that transition, and therefore hurtling headfirst toward a systemic supply squeeze.
Last month, the International Energy Agency issued a report, The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, detailing the need for dramatically ramped up production of critical minerals, including lithium, cobalt, nickel and others to meet the growing requirements of a clean energy economy that is fueled by battery storage. The report cited the “looming mismatch” between supply and demand. It noted that energy-related demand for most key metals and minerals could grow six-fold by 2040 but current production won’t keep pace. Lithium demand could grow by 40 times.
One of the most indispensable ingredients across the basket of renewable energy technologies is copper. Consider that an electric vehicle uses 200 pounds of copper – four times more than a gas-powered vehicle. Solar panels contain 5.5 tons of copper per megawatt. Wind farms require it, as do the components in energy storage units. Demand for copper is projected to double in the next two decades.
Accelerated production of copper, and other critical minerals, is necessary to make clean energy options economically viable. Otherwise, the gap between supply and demand will fuel further price increases on all critical minerals – which will make the energy transition more expensive and less competitive.
But while it might be well known, copper is in not widely available in the United States. The United States is a net importer of copper and has a major copper deficit that grows every year. The clean energy future has a mineral roadblock. If the US is going to stay on the road towards a clean energy future, we must address the shortfall.
Goldman, Sachs has called the situation “a molecule crisis” and concluded that without more copper the clean energy economy simply “will not happen.” And unlike a knowledge-based workforce that can migrate with opportunity, minerals are place-bound.
One such place is Southwestern Arizona. The area is rich in copper and has been mined for many decades. It also has the workforce and the physical infrastructure for the extraction and movement of copper to smelters and to market.
Recent price increases of copper, which reflect the gap between supply and demand, have stimulated new investments throughout Arizona. These include both a large number of new, smaller companies – like Arizona Sonoran, Redhawk, Southern, and Excelsior – and large investments like Resolution that would alone produce up to 25 percent of America’s needs.
This accelerated production of copper is necessary to make clean energy options economically viable. It should be encouraged, and encouraged across the broader basket of critical minerals. Otherwise, the gap between supply and demand will fuel further price increases on all critical minerals – which will make the clean energy transition more expensive and less competitive against traditional carbon fuels, while also ceding ground to US competitors that are aggressively investing in new energy value chains.
While the environmental and economic benefits of copper and the clean energy future it will enable are clear, many threshold issues must also be addressed. Mining companies must demonstrate assured water supply, responsible management of mine-tailings, and should be expected to “go green” with electric vehicles and new carbon capture technologies. Further, they must evidence the highest standards of environmental protection and engage in real dialogue with both nearby communities and those with long-standing heritage on the land, such as Native American tribes.
As an environmental and human rights advocate, I have opposed many copper developments. But I also fervently believe in the transition to a decarbonized economy to save the planet. And the clean energy demand for copper will happen whether America produces it or not.
Those who oppose copper development everywhere while simultaneously advocating for a clean energy future are enabling even higher net imports of copper to fill the market vacuum. Those imports will come from nations who do not adhere to American workforce or environmental standards.
Can we morally cast one eye on a clean energy horizon while turning a blind eye to that inconvenient fact? Or are we prepared to give up copper-enabled battery storage including cell phones, computers, wind, and solar power?
Finally, when will we learn the lessons of history? American dependence on Mideast oil led fueled war. The European Union’s dependence today on Russian gas weakens its leverage ability to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Is dependency on copper and strategic minerals next? Is the US prepared to relinquish control over the clean energy era?
Fred DuVal is Chairman of Excelsior Mining, a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, a former candidate for Governor, and former senior White House official.