Driven by the growth of electric vehicles (EV) and large-scale battery storage, there are a lot of reports about the global supply contraction of cobalt and lithium. But the International Energy Agency’s mineral supply chain report highlights the solar industry’s dependence on copper.
The IEA document “the role of key minerals in clean energy transformation” points out that the copper required for solar power generation is twice as much as coal-fired power. This is mainly due to the electricity transmission characteristics of the metal, especially in underground and submarine power lines. In this case, it is more popular than the widely used aluminum. The IEA report points out that by 2040, the huge scale of solar power generation will drive a surge in demand for new grid infrastructure. By 2040, copper consumption may increase from 350 kilotons last year to 990 kilotons. According to its more conservative forecast, copper demand will still rise to 800 kilotons in 2040 due to the demand caused by solar energy.
The report examines three alternatives to solar energy, including the widespread use of cadmium telluride (CdTe) and thin film photovoltaic; And perovskite silicon series technology; He Shen Gan (GaAs) panel. If we regain the support of thin-film panels, the global demand for tellurium will increase from 500 tons today to 1.4 thousand tons by 2040, and support the cadmium market of 1.3 thousand tons, taking a share of the current annual supply of 23 thousand tons. With the wide application of ultra-high efficiency solar energy technology, 3.5 thousand tons of gallium will be needed in 2040. The annual market for high-grade minerals will be more than ten times of the current annual market, and the current arsenic production is about 8kt, about one fourth of it. IEA pointed out that if the commercialization process of perovskite and silicon series equipment is accelerated to split the global solar market, it may not have much impact on the supply of key materials, but it will increase the demand for lead.
IEA said that in terms of the current mainstream solar technology and its grid expansion demand, about 30% of today’s copper is mined in Chile, and Peru, China and Congo (DRC) are the other largest suppliers. About 30% of global supply is distributed among five entities: Chile’s state-owned Codelco, Anglo Australian miner BHP and Anglo Swiss competitor Glencore, Freeport McMoRan of Arizona and Mexico’s state-owned Southern Copper Corp. Codelco has the largest supply, with an 8% market share, according to the International Energy Agency.
Investment in copper production has been growing steadily since 2010. Despite the impact of covid, related investment fell from US $18 billion in 2019 to US $12 billion last year, it is planned to diversify production through new deposits in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and the United States. IEA pointed out that since the average lead-in time from discovery to output of copper ore is about 17 years, more production investment is needed to meet the expected demand.