Clearly, the global energy landscape is changing at an exponential rate. In the U.S. alone, the solar energy market had a momentous year in 2016, nearly doubling the country’s previous installation record set in 2015. Despite expected changes in the U.S. federal government’s focus on renewable energy, it is predicted that solar power will remain a significant source of both new clean energy capacity and new jobs in 2017 and beyond. Soon, this trajectory will be impossible to ignore. As solar PV installations continue to increase, the materials that help fuel these installations will be impacted, as well.
Copper is essential to powering solar PV systems and other clean energy technology, including wind turbines, energy storage systems and electric vehicles. A wind farm can contain between 4 million and 15 million pounds of the metal used for generators, wiring, tubing, cable and step-up transformers. The surrounding infrastructure that connects this technology to the electrical grid also uses copper to run reliably and efficiently.
With regard to PV systems, copper is vital for the collection, storage and distribution of solar energy. Copper’s natural properties of high conductivity and durability increase the efficiency and performance of photovoltaic cells and modules. It is relied upon to conduct amperes and to connect voltages to the grid; in some cases, copper is needed to drive motors that tilt the solar panels toward the sun. A well-designed solar PV plant might use approximately 9,000 pounds of copper per megawatt of peak capacity – a figure that does not appear to vary significantly over installations ranging from large rooftop units to multi-megawatt utility farms.
The red metal has long been known for its use in traditional electrical generation. Copper wire and cable power homes and buildings, fuel the electrical grid, and are used in electrical transformers and motors. What many people don’t know is that copper plays an even greater role in renewable energy technology. Copper usage in renewable energy technology varies between each system, but on average, it is up to five times greater than in traditional electrical generation. In addition, copper is also used to connect these systems to energy storage installations and to the larger electrical grid.
Copper, itself, is a sustainable material for a variety of reasons. The metal used in solar PV and other renewable energy systems is not consumed. In fact, copper is 100% recyclable and can be used and reused after the lifecycle of a PV system without losing its beneficial properties, such as high conductivity and durability. Each year in the U.S., nearly as much copper is recovered from recycled material as is derived from newly mined ore. When you exclude wire production, most of which uses newly refined copper, nearly three-fourths (72%) of copper used by copper and brass mills, ingot makers, foundries, powder plants, and other industries comes from recycled copper scrap.
Copper also increases the electrical efficiency of the technology that it powers. Its electrical conductivity is virtually unmatched by any other engineering metal. This property, combined with copper’s ability to create high-quality, low-resistant connections, is the basis for highly efficient electrical equipment and lower energy losses.
Continued growth in the solar PV market presents a unique usage opportunity for copper. Following its record-breaking growth in 2016, the U.S. solar market is expected to continue expanding. Although the Obama administration largely supported renewable energy projects as a response to climate change, the Trump administration will likely be more interested in the renewable energy sector’s potential to grow jobs and increase American exports. Meanwhile, U.S. states and large corporations around the world are pledging to pick up the mantle of environmental conservation and climate science. In fact, almost 90 leading companies, including Google, Facebook, Apple, General Motors and Coca-Cola Enterprises, have committed to source 100% of their energy from renewables under the global RE100 initiative. The demand for solar PV – and, thus, for copper – will be impacted as this trend continues.
For its part, the copper industry has embraced its important role in sustainable energy and is helping to work toward a greener future. In January, for example, the International Council on Mining and Metals announced new commitments on water stewardship that support the responsible use of water. In addition, other industry organizations study clean energy applications and support initiatives that seek to increase the use of renewable energy technology.
Through outreach and engagement with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the copper industry identifies research and development projects pertaining to renewable energy, electricity delivery and advanced manufacturing. This relationship building has resulted in a number of opportunities for both associations and individual copper producers. For example, in October 2016, Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining corporations, announced a partnership with the DOE’s Critical Materials Institute to aid in the recovery of critical materials and minerals. This research project will work to ensure that the U.S. fully leverages domestic resources, such as copper, that are essential to clean power manufacturing.
The European copper industry has embraced the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and has developed strategies to support significant carbon reductions in the downstream industrial, residential and service sectors. By 2020, these strategies could deliver 130 million tons of CO2 savings per year. The European Copper Institute report, “Copper’s Contribution To A Low-Carbon Future – A Plan To Decarbonize Europe By 25 percent,” outlines specific copper-based technologies triggering CO2 reduction, including motor and transformer efficiency and solar thermal technologies. It also outlines reduction opportunities within the copper industry.
As renewable energy technology and solar PV systems, in particular, become the “new normal” both in the U.S. and abroad, copper will be increasingly utilized. It is trusted to power these systems efficiently and to reliably connect them to the larger electrical grid. Whether in energy storage systems, solar panels, electric cars or transformers, copper is essential to the world’s energy supply. The copper industry is proud of the role it has to play in renewable energy and is committed to supporting a more sustainable future. As solar PV systems continue to become more affordable and competitive with fossil fuels, the market for this technology will have a strong impact on the demand for copper products.
Zolaikha Strong is director of sustainable energy for the Copper Development Association.