To Support America’s Electrification, We’ll Need More Copper Than Ever Before
Transportation, both in the U.S. and across the world, is undergoing a transformation to a connected, electric future. The changing demands of this electric vehicle (EV) switch requires a widespread restructuring of today’s supply chains for a variety of minerals and materials.
The headlines for this supply chain switch have focused largely on critical minerals like lithium, cobalt, and rare earth elements. But a rocketing demand for copper—which recently shot above $9,000 per ton for the first time in almost a decade amid supply concerns, and is predicted to exceed $10,000 per ton in the near future—has been all but overlooked.
With all the focus on the need for critical minerals, this oversight is ironic given that many of the critical minerals, like rhenium, are in fact common by-products of copper deposits. If the U.S. is to secure its EV industry, it must also focus on building a more robust copper supply chain.
Compared to the high import dependencies for key EV battery minerals—92 percent, 100 percent, 59 percent and 100 percent for lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite respectively—copper’s 35 percent net import reliance appears low.
However, EVs require four times as much copper as conventional vehicles and demand will only grow as countries mobilize to electrify their vehicle fleets, let alone the rising need for copper wiring in grid stabilization infrastructure, EV charging stations, and wind turbines.
Total copper demand for the EV sector is projected to rise from less than 500,000 tons today to nearly 1.5 million tons in 2025, and to 3.3 million tons in 2030. Copper’s dizzying rise in price, from a low of $4,617 per ton in March 2020, is partly due to rising anticipated demand from the EV transition and its requisite infrastructure.
In total, it is anticipated we will need to produce the same amount of copper in the coming 25 years that the world has produced in the last 5,000 years to meet consumer demand, including the needs of the EV transition and wider electrification goals. However, the U.S.’ capacity to produce and process copper has yet to rise with it.
Today, there are only two copper smelters operating in the U.S.—Rio Tinto’s Kennecott project in Utah and Freeport’s Morenci smelter in Arizona—with permitting for new smelters unlikely.
Worse still, we are not the only country in the hunt for copper and its refined products to power the EV transition—China already consumes half the world’s supply and seeks to lead the electrification shift—and yet the amount of new domestic capacity is miniscule. The Pumpkin Hollow mine in Nevada, for example, is the first new U.S. copper mine to open in a decade.
Other projects, most notably the Resolution Copper mine 60 miles east of Phoenix, hold considerable potential to help the U.S. meet its growing copper demand if it can withstand over a decade of permitting and public engagement. Over a mile underground, this massive deposit of copper has the potential to supply 20 percent of U.S. copper demand.
If we are to compete, we must adopt a comprehensive minerals-to-markets strategy, which requires locking down enough mineral supply to meet our EV and electric grid infrastructure ambitions. Securing our copper supply chain on the cusp of this exponential demand boom is vital.
We must therefore work to preserve the supply chain we currently have while also finding ways to grow secure supply. We need to optimize current operations, work with allies like Canada and Australia to secure supply from their mines and smelters and also ensure we are using innovative approaches to extract critical minerals that nature has sought fit to make a by-product of copper deposits.
Finally, we must advance the permitting of responsible domestic copper production, making our high environmental and labor standards an advantage when marketing this copper as Made in the USA.
Since the days of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse battling over AC or DC currents more than a century ago, copper has driven the electrification of the U.S. We are about to enter a second period of historically-significant electrification, and we should be doing everything we can to ensure stable, domestic, and secure supply of this vital commodity as a national security priority.
General James T. Conway served as the 34th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and is co-Chair of the Energy Security Leadership Council, a project of SAFE.
Thomas M. Conway is the International President of the United Steelworkers union.