The US Must Meet the Material Needs of the EV Revolution
In January of 2007, Apple launched its first iPhone. At the time, there was a compelling sense that something special was happening, but very few people truly understood where the moment would lead. We had entered the “smart phone age,” which was accompanied by a world of connectivity previously unimaginable. Today we are quickly arriving at another world-changing moment, and this time it will be literally and figuratively driven by the electric vehicle (EV).
Just as the birth of the smart phone fostered fierce competition among inventors, investors, developers, and manufacturers, it’s happening again with EVs. Despite being a relatively small share of today’s automobile market, a flood of capital is pouring into electric propulsion platforms and the batteries that power them. GM alone will commit $27 billion to EV development over the next five years; Volkswagen is investing $86 billion. From Tesla and Cadillac to Mustang and Hummer, the future of motor vehicles in America and around the world is electric.
But even if there is growing acknowledgement that EVs are the future, less understood is that our electric future relies heavily on major production increases in many essential minerals and metals. From lithium to nickel, cobalt, aluminum, graphite and copper, the demand for the key metals used in EVs, and an array of other advanced energy technologies, is ready to soar.
According to energy consultant Wood Mackenzie, more than $1 trillion of investment will be necessary to produce the metals for low-carbon energy technologies over the next 15 years. That’s why mining techniques, equipment, safe practices, and responsible regulatory platforms and policies have never been more important than right now.
Copper is the element and the market reacting most quickly to this emerging demand, and its prices have recently jumped to a seven-year high on the back of anticipated infrastructure investment and green energy stimulus proposals. Copper is a crucial component for EV development and the perfect example of how responsible metal and mineral mining will protect and improve, not harm, our environment and economy. Copper wiring alone comprises the arterial systems of virtually every new wind turbine, solar panel, electric transmission line, and EV.
Copper’s recognition as the essential conductive metal in an electrified world has driven up its global demand by 38 percent during the past decade, and it is now entering a period of accelerating growth. And as China’s economy roars back to life, its imports of refined copper and related products have surged 41% just this year.
As new leadership in Washington pledges a big infrastructure push, a major green stimulus package, and a fast-tracked EV revolution, it’s imperative to increase our domestic production of essential minerals and metals in the U.S., especially copper.
While there is growing bipartisan awareness of the need to encourage responsible domestic mineral production, important projects like the Resolution Copper mine in Arizona are facing troubling opposition.
Resolution has been criticized for a rushed permitting process, but nothing could be further from the truth. The mining project, which could meet 20 percent of this nation’s copper needs, has been moving carefully through permitting for seven years. Instead of fast-tracking approvals, the U.S. Forest Service announced recently that completing project reviews will be delayed several more months, and well-past the schedule established during the Obama Administration.
If we can’t move forward with intelligent projects like Resolution Copper, increased reliance on mineral imports from places that lack adequate environmental and labor standards becomes inevitable. In the same measure, our failure to boost essential mineral production in America could easily deter or derail critically important new energy technologies.
The EV revolution and the global pivot to renewable energy is materials intensive, and it requires embracing and enforcing environmentally responsible mining now. This is a breakthrough moment, and the promise it holds for developing a green economy, meaningfully reducing carbon emissions, and securing our nation’s energy future requires decisive action today.
Thomas J. Madison Jr. is a transportation / infrastructure consultant who has previously served as administrator of the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.