Copper has long held a place in the energy market, given its strong conductivity attributes. But as the nation, and the world, shifts toward more renewable forms of energy generation and away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels, the material is poised to significantly grow its share in the sector.
The McLean, Va.-based Copper Development Association, the market development arm of the U.S. copper industry, is taking steps to make sure red metals realize their potential gains in energy’s transformation. Zolaikha Strong, director of sustainable energy for the CDA is leading the group’s efforts.
Strong says there are many ways copper can take advantage of the changes within the energy industry. For starters, the metal is an integral part of any growth in the wind and solar markets. Copper wire is used in both transformers and substations, plus the necessary storage facilities to deal with those power source’s intermittency issues.
Wind power has been a major source of growth in the past decade, with gains of more than 30 percent in onshore production. Generators use 1,900 pounds of copper in a 1.5- megawatt wind turbine.
But there may be more potential in solar for the material. The CDA notes that copper increases the efficiency, reliability and performance of photovoltaic cells and modules. It says copper’s superior electrical and thermal conductivities are vital in the collection, storage and distribution of solar energy. And solar has experienced 60-70 percent compound growth in the last 10 years.
In May, California’s energy commission created a mandate that all new home construction in the state will be required to have solar power. And while it may be awhile before other states follow suit, it doesn’t hurt the industry that the push is happening in the country’s largest state.
Ultimately, there is about six times more copper in renewable energy sources than in corresponding fossil fuel generation.
Storage is also a key element of the entire package. Strong notes that Siemens and AES are in the process of constructing the largest energy storage plant in the United States. That is just part of the $240 billion in investments expected in grid storage applications in the U.S. through 2020.
On the automotive side, increased production of electric vehicles will have multiple benefits for the copper supply chain. In conventional vehicles, there is an estimated 18-50 pounds of copper in each car. But for electric vehicles, copper usage increases to 85-132 pounds, or about three times as much on average.
Additionally, the growth in electric vehicles will require a tremendous increase in charging infrastructure, which will again demand extensive copper usage. About 5 million charge ports will be needed to support the greater prevalence of electric vehicles. The total number of EVs is expected to reach 7 million by 2025.
“All of that energy storage used to be the answer with renewables, because of their variability and intermittency, but it now is the answer for electric vehicles,” she says.
Finally, there’s the infrastructure required to handle the growth efficiently and effectively.
“The final and most important part I think is supporting the transmission grids, whether that’s the development of high-voltage lines across states or microgrids for all of this new infrastructure and to be able to build a reliable and resilient frame to have these markets interconnected,” she says.
Strong is dedicated to making copper part of the conversation and is attacking the issue on multiple fronts. She recently penned a guest column for The Hill that highlighted the significant efforts being undertaken by the private sector and states, such as investments in on-site charging stations at corporations such as PepsiCo and UPS, and work being done in Michigan, Colorado and Maryland, among others, on similar measures. But, she said, there has been a decided pullback in Washington for support of renewables. The most recent White House budget called for an increase in funding for fossil fuel and nuclear energy research, while cutting alternative energy funding by 65 percent. “We ask that when Congress negotiates our nation’s budget, they leave room for electric vehicles and grid modernization so American innovation, businesses and opportunities may flourish.”
Grid modernization was also the topic of a separate column for the Washington Times, though this one on the potential for a cyberattack on the nation’s existing energy grid and the havoc it would cause. Ukraine has already experienced just such an event.
One solution to protect the U.S. from such an attack is through upgrades to the grid. “Equally important to securing the nation is providing an alternative to traditional grids and using microgrids,” Strong wrote. “Microgrids are resilient and decrease the chances of major, widespread electrical failure because they are able to operate independently during a disaster or in the event of a national security concern.”
Those contributed pieces are a large part of Strong’s mission to continually educate various stakeholders on the role copper plays in the energy sector. “One of the things I do is general education to the market area, letting everybody know the importance and the vital role copper plays in these markets,” she says. “Having everyone understand the conductivity, the importance of copper in electrical systems, is what really helps.”
One of the issues that has long dogged red metals adoption, particularly when it’s competing with other materials, is the price. The CDA does not talk about demand or price in accordance with its antitrust guidelines. But Strong is not averse to talking about the material’s life cycle advantages. The material is essentially infinitely recyclable, given there’s no degradation to the metal, or its properties, through the years.
“When you look at the circular economy and what goes into your system, all of that is important to drive conversations,” she says.