Twenty Million Tonnes

One tonne is one thousand kilograms. It is also called a metric ton. It is about 2200 pounds or 10% larger than the standard US ton of 2000 pounds.

In 2020 the world produced about 20 million tonnes of copper. Here’s a chart of copper use:

“Transportation” includes automobiles. Right now about 3% of all vehicles sold in the world are fully electric. That’s about 2+ million EVs out of 75 million total vehicles sold globally each year.

Here’s another chart:

Can you see the problem?

A battery-powered, all-electric vehicle (BEV) needs much more copper than a conventional vehicle. 183 is ten times bigger than 18 and nearly four times bigger than 49. No matter how much copper your car needs now your future electric vehicle will need a lot more.

Where’s the copper going to come from? The rest of the copper consumers aren’t going to use less copper so that we can all have EVs. No, the copper will have to come from copper mines. And we will have to get really good at copper recycling!

The world’s biggest copper mine is in Chile. Minera Escondida produces about 1 million tonnes of copper annually or about 5% of the world’s supply. It supposedly has at least another ten years of life, and there is supposedly another 30 million tonnes of copper worth getting from that spot. I say “supposedly” because no one is really sure. There may be plenty of copper, but it may be too hard and too expensive to get. Or there may not be as much quality ore down there than they think.

Mining is a tough business. It’s hard to open a mine. They cost a lot of money up front. And until there is a steady stream of ore processing and thus a steady sale of the mineral product most mines lose money early in their lifespan. Once the cash flow comes then you have a decent business. But commodity prices are volatile and subject to a lot of odd market shocks and even a money-making mine can suddenly become an expensive burden.

Mining is hard on the environment. And the water and power requirements are usually enormous. Mines are typically far from civilization and thus transport and infrastructure impacts are large. Mining companies have a lousy track record on environmental issues, and are often even worse when it comes to labor and community relations.

The Green New Deal is going to require one hell of a lot of copper. Obviously EVs will drive much of that demand. All of the push toward renewable energy and increased electrification will depend on an abundant supply of copper.

Copper demand is expected to increase by 50% in the next twenty years. That means ten million more tonnes of copper per year! In fact, a five million tonne deficit is expected by 2030. The mining industry will have to invest perhaps $100 billion dollars in the next ten years to meet rising demand.

It is hard to locate copper deposits. The easy-to-find ones are already being exploited. There is a massive copper region in Arizona but there is a lot of opposition to developing that resource. We need the stuff, but it’s a mess to get and leaves a big mess behind so people are (rightly) suspicious of mining companies.

So, what to do? We need to “go green” but it’s going to cost us. Are we ready to pay?

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