Global energy transition powers surge in demand for metals

By 2030, the amount of installed wind power globally will more than double, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Installed solar power will quadruple.

And the number of electric vehicles will increase 1,389% – to 125 million from three million – by 2030, and 3,333% in 2040 to 300 million, according to the IEA.

Given that each electric vehicle requires 83 kilograms of copper and each wind turbine contains about 3.5 tonnes of the metal, that represents a surging demand for copper – as well as other base metals – on a timeline that is shorter than what it typically takes to bring a new mine into production. 

Copper is just one of the base metals needed for things like wind turbines and electric cars, and it’s one of the metals for which there is no good substitute. Substantial amounts of iron and metallurgical coal are also needed to make the steel that goes into wind turbines and cars.

If, as the IEA predicts, there are 125 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road by 2030, it will require roughly 10 million tonnes of copper – a 50% increase over current annual global copper consumption (20 million tonnes).

The additional wind turbines built by 2030 would require roughly two million tonnes of copper – about 10% of the world’s current production.

That’s not even taking into account how much copper would be needed for a quadrupling of solar power, and all the enhancements to the electrical grid and charging infrastructure for electric vehicles that will be required.

Given how much aluminum, metallurgical coal, copper, aluminum, zinc and rare earths are required for each wind turbine and each EV – and how much lithium and cobalt are needed for EV batteries – it begs the question: Will the transition to a low-carbon economy lead to “peak metals” (the point of maximum metal production)?

The targets that governments are setting for themselves for electric vehicle and renewable energy adoption will require a massive increase in mining, and there’s some question as to whether the new mines required can even be built in time to meet the demand according to the timelines being set.

A recent joint study by Metabolic, Copper 8 and Leiden Universityfor the Dutch government estimates that global production of some metals will need to increase 12-fold by 2050 if all signatories of the Paris Agreement live up to their commitments to decarbonizing their economies.

“The good news is that, for most metals, enough identified metal reserves are available for the energy transition,” the report concludes.

“However, the lead time for operating new mines is in the range of 10 to 20 years. Therefore, the ever more pressing question is whether we can make these metals available in the time that we have left to implement the energy transition: about three decades.”

Some government bodies responsible for energy security have already begun to ring alarm bells and are asking whether a shortage of certain critical metals will allow the energy transition to happen on the scale and timelines that many governments have set for themselves.

One study raises concerns about the supply of silver, which is used in photovoltaic cells for solar power. Another raises concerns about lithium and cobalt, both of which are needed for lithium-ion batteries used in EVs.

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