The coming copper crunch

Very macro.

Copper—the “metal of electrification”—is essential to all energy transition plans. But the potential supply-demand gap is expected to be very large… …Substitution and recycling will not be enough to meet the demands of electric vehicles (EVs), power infrastructure, and renewable generation…

The chronic gap between worldwide copper supply and demand projected to begin in the middle of this decade will have serious consequences across the global economy…

In the 21st century, copper scarcity may emerge as a key destabilizing threat to international security. Projected annual shortfalls will place unprecedented strain on supply chains. The challenges this poses are reminiscent of the 20th-century scramble for oil but may be accentuated by an even higher geographic concentration for copper resources and the downstream industry to refine it into products [read China].

In the United States, the nexus between a politicized regulatory process and the ubiquity of litigation makes it unlikely that efforts to expand copper output in the United States would yield significant increases in domestic supply within the decade…

Multidimensional challenges make the development of mines a generational endeavor, spanning decades and requiring hundreds of billions of dollars. Projects under development today would likely not be sufficient to offset the projected shortfalls in copper supply, even if their permitting and construction were accelerated.



If this can be produced at scale…meaning heavy industry can ramp this up which will take a new industrial method…then copper will dramatically fall in price.

Aluminum: A Cheap Substitute for Copper.


I’m reminded of Hubbards Rule that oil production would peak and begin a decline. Then came fracking. Will something similar be predicted for copper?

At least copper is forever. Once mined it can be recycled ad infinitum.


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Exactly what I was thinking. Aluminum wiring came on the market in the early 70s. A rash of fires came with it, as the aluminum wire was used with hardware designed for copper. The copper hardware was not designed to allow for the greater expansion of aluminum with heat, so the connections would loosen, which made them get hotter, until a fire started.

We old phartz remember when plumbing was done with copper. Then PEX tubing arrived.


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I was almost killed by a fire in my apartment caused by aluminum wire in the kitchen ceiling in 1983. I was asleep and heard the crackling of the flames. Ran out barefoot in my nightgown. The firefighters threw all my furniture out the 3rd story window. The smoke was so hot that it melted the lampshades next to my bed.

This building is now a co-op. A 1200 sq ft condo (2 bedroom, 2 bath) is selling for $265,000 with a condo fee of $1,065 per month.

I wonder if there have been any other fires. I wonder if the sellers make full disclosure of the wiring.



Interesting question.

For regular multi-family properties, the bank will require an inspection that specifically checks for aluminum wiring. This came about as a result of the savings and loan crisis, when loans were being made on non-existent buildings, so banks now have to prove they inspected the building. I don’t know how it works for co-ops.

Aluminum will help, and the report factors that in.

Page 16: “First, we project future copper demand on a technology-by- technology basis, taking into account the prospects for substituting copper with other metals, e.g., aluminum.

Page 31: " Aluminum can play the role of substitute in certain cases. In general, aluminum is increasingly privileged for overhead T&D, as it is relatively cheaper and more lightweight than copper. However, aluminum does have increased maintenance requirements and lower technical properties for electrical conduction compared with copper (lower conductivity entails larger cables, and higher corrosion issues). Currently, aluminum production can be more carbon intensive than copper production. These physical characteristics mean that copper remains a material of choice for underground and subsea lines, where technical specification and maintenance play a larger role. Aluminum is also not ideal for transformers."

Page 36: " 0. Substitution of copper use to aluminum has been the primary driver of reduced copper use in certain sectors, for electrical wiring in particular. Increased substitution will continue in T&D but will hit technical and economic limitations (see the discussion below). Alternative materials in automotive will also reduce copper intensity in EVs."

Page 37: "Maintenance issues: aluminum is less ductile (fatigue sets in with breaks possible at stress points when subject to bending), subject to higher oxidation, more sensitive to compression, and has greater thermal expansion and contraction, meaning the connections degrade faster with temperature changes. As a result, aluminum lines require more maintenance than copper lines.
“Emissions intensity: aluminum production is a highly carbon-intensive process. This may further restrict substitution as companies are looking to achieve net-zero emission targets.”

Page B.14: “In harnesses, wire gauge will remain a barrier of substitution to aluminum. Aluminum cables require a larger cross-section for the same specifications, which poses an issue for vehicles.”

B.15: “As mentioned in Chapter 3. Copper requirements in the energy transition in the main report, copper is the material of choice in underground and subsea lines where technical characteristics play a larger role than weight. However, on the other hand, aluminum use is privileged for overhead lines in both transmission and distribution, and in particular for higher-voltage lines. As a result, the study assumes the use of copper for underground and subsea lines (in particular for offshore wind) and use of aluminum for overhead lines.”


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Aluminum wire is perfectly safe, it’s the connections between it and copper plugs (fuse box, light switches, etc.) that is the problem. Home inspections now check for this, and there are approved “inter connectors” which bridge the gap between aluminum wiring and copper connectors which eliminate the problem of wire loosening.

You can retrofit a home for about $3 per connection.