The Biden administration’s objective of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 has set the stage for copper products to meet that goal.
The Biden administration is set on halving U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and aiming for the country to have a net zero emissions economy by 2050. The copper industry is ready to help meet these goals, given its crucial role in solar, wind, hydro and geothermal applications. Whatever the application, though, experts agree that this metal and its alloys can lead the way toward net zero.
Copper helps pave the way to sustainability, according to Martin Little, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Concast Metal Products Co. in Wakeman, Ohio, and Mars, Pa. “As our reliance on fossil fuels is reduced, we need to get energy from somewhere,” he says. “Therefore electric motors that take lots of copper for all types of applications have become more popular.”
So agrees Amy O’Shaughnessy, vice president of sales and marketing at Revere Copper Products, Inc., Rome, N.Y. The company supplies copper to the electric vehicle market, among others. “Copper and electricity go hand in hand. The conductive properties of copper really lend to this whole electrification of society,” she says. “We see there is a demand for electric vehicles – and it’s real. The number of inquiries that are coming in from our customer base have risen and the order volume is increasing.”
Anthony Mandrik, general manager of Trenton, N.J.-based Atlas Bronze, acknowledges the change. “Electrification will continue to climb worldwide as more countries push for clean air and environmental initiatives,” he says.
Dan Kendall, president of ABC Metals, Inc., Logansport, Ind., points out that high-performance copper alloys have been engineered to tolerate the intense heat generated from conductivity. “They get hot, but they don’t start to lose their form and mechanical attributes,” he says. “The only item more conductive [than copper] is silver, but that’s not exactly an alternative.”
Kendall notes some copper professionals use silver-plated brass. “So they can get the conductivity of the silver, and there may be sufficient heat distribution in the brass that they can maintain their application.”
Copper is the heart of electric vehicles, which use five times more copper products than those with internal combustion engines, according to Mike Russo, vice president of business development, National Bronze Manufacturing Company, Roseville, Mich. “When you’re talking about companies such as GM and Volkswagen switching their entire fleet over, you’re looking at a huge demand for copper, as compared to gasoline[-powered] vehicles,” he says.
Kendall says, “There is more copper content already in the electric and hybrid vehicles than there was in the internal combustion vehicle. It’s just needed.” He adds that smart cars require copper for their controls, such as sensors and connectors.
Little agrees that EVs are in great demand. “If the government mandated a certain number of electric vehicles by a certain date,” he says, “that will drive the automakers to make more electric vehicles, and the charging stations will follow, just based on supply and demand. The infrastructure for electric cars is already happening.” He adds that, as more charging stations become available, people will feel more confident to purchase EVs.
Not only is the general public purchasing electric vehicles, but O’Shaughnessy observes that a large number of electric vehicles will likely be in fleets, such as UPS trucks, Amazon delivery trucks, buses and even rental cars. “Anything where there’s a big fleet that’s more public in nature, you’ll probably see that switch over [to electric],” she says. “When you think of a charging station for a fleet of vehicles, it’s going to be a lot bigger than charging your Tesla at home.”
While demand for EVs grows, Kendall is concerned about charging stations, hoping enough are placed throughout the country so drivers don’t have to travel long distances to charge their EVs. He compared this infrastructure movement to Eisenhower’s inventing the U.S. interstate highway system, causing massive numbers of gas stations to be built. “It wouldn’t help to have a highway, and you’d have to travel 30 miles away from that highway to get fuel,” he says, likening that to an insufficient charging grid.
Mandrik concurs: “GM said that in a few years it will stop producing combustion engine cars. But to have electric vehicles as a combustion engine alternative, we need EV infrastructure to reduce range anxiety.” Yet, he also points out that “some experts believe that by 2030, there will be over 500,000 chargers across the U.S.”
And with EVs and their necessary infrastructure, it’s no wonder why there’s a surge in demand and, subsequently, a surge in price. “[With EVs being popular], countries and economies coming out of the COVID environment and everything ramping back up, there’s definitely going to be a surge in demand,” says Russo. “You’re also seeing that in the price.”
Little agrees about the price of copper products. “As a consumer and producer of copper products, we’re expecting the price to continue to rise and the supply to be tight and the demand to be big,” he says. “We’re excited about our future; our first quarter has been really good. We had a fantastic April, and we’re very happy about how things are going.”
With its many applications, copper is in an enviable position to lead the way toward the Biden administration’s net zero goal – not only through the use of EVs and the infrastructure needed to support them, but also through data centers.
“Data is a big deal, and it was accelerated because of the work-from-home orders,” says O’Shaughnessy. “I was talking to someone recently, and they were saying that data center projects that are planned to be built in 2022 have been moved into 2021 because of the demand.”
It isn’t just the red metal supply chain that’s bullish on copper’s role in a green future.
In April, three commodities analysts for Goldman Sachs authored a paper with a bold, and encouraging, claim. “Copper is the New Oil” the paper was titled.
“The critical role copper will play in achieving the Paris climate goals cannot be understated. Without serious advancements in carbon capture and storage technology in the coming years, the entire path to net zero emissions will have to come from abatement – electrification and renewable energy. As the most cost-effective conductive material, copper sits at the heart of capturing, storing and transporting these new sources of energy,” authors Nicholas Snowdon, Daniel Sharp and Jeffrey Currie wrote. Recycling Copper
Enhancing its green bona fides is the material’s recyclability, Little emphasizes. “Roughly 90 percent of everything we make at our mill, we make from recycled products,” he says. “We have a great number of suppliers of recycled products that we buy from. Our suppliers recycle the copper, so what we get in has already been qualified for us, ensuring the proper chemical makeup of the incoming recycled product.”
“One of the nice things about copper, even some of the bronze alloys, is it’s one of the most recycled metals,” Russo says. “Scrap copper or recycled copper is used just the same way as purely mined copper is. It can be melted back into its original alloy,” he says, adding that his bronze alloys, which are about 87 percent copper, return to National Bronze’s mill and are transformed back into a pure alloy once again. He is proud that even scrap parts don’t go to waste – because they are in high demand. The company uses bronze mills throughout the United States to recycle scrap and chips. “Every piece of scrap is 100 percent recyclable. Nothing goes to waste,” he says.
“In terms of zero carbon emissions and sustainability, copper is used in buildings, on the roofs of buildings, on the gutters, on the wall panels, and copper really lends itself to the whole sustainability movement, this whole green building movement. It’s recyclable, forever. When that building’s ready to come down some day, you can take the copper right off and bring it to Revere, and we’ll melt it and turn it into another product,” O’Shaughnessy says.
She notes that recycling copper products is important “for the long-term future of domestic mills, and to allow for re-investment,” adding that the byproducts of the automotive industry, stampers, etc. return to domestic mills such as Revere to recycle. The U.S. and its mills should avoid sending high-grade, clean scrap to other countries, such as China, she adds. “I think our country should be very mindful of what kind of scrap is being sent out of our country to places like China, and we really should be careful. We’re going to have to pay attention to that as a country and as an industry.”
In fact, O’Shaughnessy says the pandemic exposed one of the U.S.’ weaknesses: the country’s reliance on foreign supply. “That reliance has grown over the last 20 years to the detriment of American mills. If you look back at American copper and brass mills for the last 20, 30 years, they’ve all reduced in size, they’ve closed plants, they’ve laid off, and generally speaking have not been able to invest at the level that is really required to be where you need to be in order to be a viable supplier for the future,” she says. “When you have customers that are choosing to buy lower cost products from overseas, it really hurts your revenue strength and your ability to properly invest.”
For those relying on foreign copper, getting the material shipped has been problematic lately, and perhaps in the future as well. “For the supply chain, I think things will become a little strained,” says Little. “Copper has been hampered by global shipping challenges such as lack of containers, the Suez Canal issue and COVID.” He adds that some of Concast’s demand has come from new customers who can no longer buy their goods from overseas because of such challenges.
O’Shaughnessy agrees about the transportation issues, highlighting the container shortage. She says when COVID appeared, container manufacturers assumed there would be less demand, so fewer containers were available. Yet, with the advent of the pandemic, “everybody’s home and you had a flood of stimulus money and people weren’t spending it on travel,” she says. “Instead they’re buying things for their home or personal use, and a lot of [these purchases] are coming from overseas. Now, all of a sudden, the demand for international shipment was huge and the industry was unprepared for it.”
Not only are there long waiting times for containers, but metals professionals have reported long lead times for copper products. “We hear of certain copper flat-roll, and that would include heat and coil, with lead times of eight to 12 months. Therefore they are already looking at quoting next year for delivery,” says Little. “We are fortunate at Concast to be very busy, and have been able to keep up with our supply of scrap and keep up with our customers’ demand.”
“You have mills that are making copper, you have mills that are making brass, mills that are making other alloys in between those two,” O’Shaughnessy says, “and I think what you’re finding is in many cases you have brass that’s out to the end of the year, if not early next year, and copper that’s being quoted now going out into the third quarter, so generally speaking, lead times are longer than they have been in the past,” she says.
There’s also another issue that’s creating longer lead times and that is having enough employees come to work and hiring new employees. “I’ve talked with others in our industry, and everybody is dealing with some level of difficulty getting new employees because you’re competing against unemployment rates that people are getting paid now,” she says. Although abundant jobs are available, people are not.
Still, despite these issues, copper remains the metal of choice when it comes to meeting government goals. “With the push for more green initiatives, adoption of electric options by local and federal governments ensures that copper will be important for the foreseeable future,” says Mandrik.Call-out:
Copper is widely used in sustainability initiatives.
(Photo courtesy of ABC Metals, Inc.)