The clean economy will occur with electric vehicles, wind and solar power and enhanced battery storage. And the indispensable ingredient of energy storage is copper because of its singular capacity to conduct heat and electricity. A cleaner, decarbonized economy simply cannot happen without more copper.
For example, an average electric vehicle uses 200 pounds of it. A solar panel contains 5.5 tons of copper per megawatt. Wind farms require it, as does energy transmission.
But the current – and projected – global copper supply is insufficient to power this transition to clean energy. The United States now has a major copper deficit and is a net importer. The clean energy future has a mineral roadblock.
Shortages have already resulted in a doubling of copper prices in the last two years and demand will grow by 50 percent in the next two decades. And the price escalation drives the cost of the clean energy transition higher – making it less competitive to coal and gas.
Goldman, Sachs has called the situation “a molecule crisis” and concluded that without more copper the clean energy economy “will not happen.”
In 1910 one quarter of Arizona workers were employed in mining, but by the 1980s the numbers had dwindled and the sector struggled. And now the Copper State is back.
While long-established players continue copper production at traditional locations such as Clifton-Morenci and Hayden, new copper exploration is occurring in developments both large and small. The large Resolution Mine proposed outside of Superior on the former site of the Magma Mine will produce up to 25 percent of America’s needs. Meanwhile, producers are developing smaller deposits not heretofore economically viable. These include Bell, Carlotta, Florence, Arizona Sonoran and Excelsior.
The “copper triangle” between Superior, Clifton and Cochise County is rich in copper, has been mined for many decades, and has the workforce and the physical infrastructure for the extraction and movement of copper to smelters and to market.
The copper deposits are a locational economic advantage for Arizona similar to what agriculture is to the Midwest and what international shipping ports are to the coasts.
The economic impact is large but standards are key.
New copper will create thousands of good family-supporting jobs in struggling rural Arizona, will bolster Arizona tax income by billions of dollars and provide a powerful export to enhance our economic growth.
But there are many threshold issues that must be addressed as we proceed. Copper companies must demonstrate assured water supply and responsible management of mine tailings, and should be expected to “go green” with electric vehicles and new carbon capture technologies. Further, they must evidence the highest standards of consultation with both nearby communities and those with long-standing heritage on the land.
As an environmental and human rights advocate, I have opposed many copper developments. Regardless of the economic lure, not every copper site should warrant extraction. It must be done by responsible companies, in the right locations, adhering to the right standards.
But I also fervently believe in the transition to a decarbonized economy to save the planet. The clean energy demand for copper will happen whether Arizona produces it or not.
If not Arizona, who?
China, the biggest producer of mined and refined copper, is racing to fill the vacuum. As will other nations who do not adhere to American workforce, human rights or environmental standards.
Further, when will we learn the lessons of history? American dependence on Mideast oil led us to war. European dependence today on Russian gas weakens their leverage as to Ukraine. Is dependency on strategic minerals next?
Those who generically oppose copper development everywhere while simultaneously advocating for a clean energy future are enabling bad actors – environmental outlaws and human rights abusers – to fill the market void. And creating American weakness. Can we morally cast one eye on a clean energy horizon while turning a blind eye to that ugly fact? Or are we prepared to give up cell phones, computers, wind and solar power?
The 20th century Arizona economy had the original 5 “C”s but the 21st century Arizona economy includes computer chips and clean energy. It will take new copper to enable them.
Opportunity is knocking on Arizona’s door a second time. We would be foolish to lock it shut.
Fred DuVal is Chairman of Excelsior Mining and a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, and a former candidate for Governor and senior White House official.