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Overcoming the copper supply challenge: Implications for U.S. renewable energy goals

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A recent University of Michigan study sheds light on a concerning gap in copper production essential for meeting renewable energy targets in the United States. The study suggests a need to reassess priorities, considering a shift towards manufacturing hybrid vehicles and a careful balance in copper allocation to address both domestic and global demands.

The study, led by U-M professor Adam Simon and Cornell University researcher Lawrence Cathles, delves into the challenges posed by the current pace of copper mining in meeting the demands set by U.S. policy goals for transitioning to renewable energy in both electricity and vehicle infrastructure.

The Inflation Reduction Act, enacted in 2022, aims for 100% of manufactured cars to be electric vehicles by 2035. However, electric vehicles require significantly more copper than traditional internal combustion engine vehicles, along with additional copper for grid upgrades required by the shift to renewable energy sources.

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According to Simon, a conventional Honda Accord needs about 40 pounds of copper, whereas its electric counterpart requires nearly 200 pounds. Moreover, wind turbines, both onshore and offshore, demand substantial amounts of copper, further exacerbating the shortfall.

The study, drawing from 120 years of global copper mining data, reveals that the projected copper needs for renewable energy infrastructure exceed what mining companies can feasibly produce at the current rate. One significant contributing factor is the lengthy permitting process for new mines, averaging about 20 years from discovery to construction.

The global demand for copper presents a daunting challenge, with the study estimating a need for 115% more copper production between 2018 and 2050 than has been mined throughout human history until 2018. This demand includes not only current needs but also supports for the developing world and the green energy transition.

To bridge the gap, the researchers advocate for a shift in focus from fully electrifying vehicle fleets to manufacturing hybrid vehicles, which require less copper. Additionally, they emphasize the broader implications of copper scarcity, highlighting its necessity for developing countries to build essential infrastructure such as clean water facilities and electricity grids.

In conclusion, while the study supports efforts to reduce emissions through renewable energy initiatives, it underscores the critical need for a more balanced approach to copper allocation and mining practices. Without a comprehensive reevaluation, meeting renewable energy targets may face significant obstacles.

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