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Copper and aluminum shortages: what will that mean for transmission lines needed for electrification?


“Electrification,” in the envisioned zero-carbon emission future, means replacing gas/oil run vehicles, furnaces, boilers, etc. with electric versions based on the premise of improved environment, climate, and sustainability.

Is electrification more environmentally friendly and sustainable?   You decide.

Transmission Concern #1: High voltage underground electricity transmission lines have been vexed with technical difficulties, especially in maintenance and repair; the doubling of overhead electrical transmission lines needed for “electrification” will inevitably mar landscapes and horizons.

Transmission Concern #2: The U.S. imports most of the metals used in “electrification” —demand has outpaced supply, leading to cost escalations, insecurity of that supply, and inability to provide the increased electricity transmission needed.

Natural gas pipelines are for the most part underground, out of sight, and made from steel and plastic.

Before transformed to lower voltages used in domestic and business applications, electricity flows through high voltage transmission lines that are hundreds of feet overhead. They require primarily aluminum that is currently in short supply. Think of the increased need of transmission lines from the projected 500,000 EV charging stations alone. Article (1) below states grid expansion will more than double with the addition of “new renewable energy projects” and are estimated to require adding 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, doubling the current total, at a cost of $700 billion. An additional 200,000 miles of transmission lines, when you consider the U.S.A is approximately 3000 miles wide, means a lot of transmission towers and lines as we look up into our skies.

Aluminum and copper are in short supply, while the need for them escalates with electrification.

If the current aluminum shortage continues, the resources will not be available to double the transmission lines, and the cost will escalate as demand vastly outstrips supply. In 2021, the U.S. imported more aluminum than exported. Top three import countries: Canada, China, and Mexico.  As recently as 1981, the US produced 30% of the world's primary aluminum, and through 2000, the US was the world's largest producer of aluminum. In 2014 the US ranked sixth in aluminum production, and provided only 3.5% of world production. The U.S. is also a net importer of copper; top three import countries: European Union, China, and Mexico. (2), (3), (4), (5)

“Millions of feet of copper wiring are needed to build the denser, more complex grids that can handle electricity produced by decentralized renewable sources and balance out their intermittent supplies. Solar and wind farms require a lot more copper per unit of power produced than centralized coal and gas-fired power stations. Electric vehicles use more than twice as much copper as gasoline-powered cars, according to the Copper Alliance. As a result, annual demand is set to double to 50 million metric tons by 2035.” (6)

While the demand is skyrocketing for copper and aluminum, the US/MT supply is dwindling, not due to lack of the metals themselves but due to the lack of investment in new mining and the shuttering of current mines. Policymakers/lawmakers are capable of improving access and economic viability of U.S. mining, making the U.S. independent of the volatile, expensive foreign markets.

The good news: Aluminum and copper are plentiful in the U.S., abundant in Montana. More on that another time.

(1)States Reimagine Power Grids for Wind and Solar Future | The Pew Charitable Trusts (pewtrusts.org)

(2)The Aluminum Shortage-Why? (vincentmetals.com)

(3)Aluminum Price Forecast: Top Trends That Will Affect Aluminum in 2023 (investingnews.com)

(4)US Aluminum Imports by Supplying Country 2020 (worldstopexports.com)

(5)Column: How lack of copper could slow the energy transition - Red Cloud Financial Services Inc. (redcloudfs.com)

(6)Revealed: how US transition to electric cars threatens environmental havoc | US news | The Guardian

Copper Shortage 2023 - why there is short supply of copper worldwide? (discontinuednews.com)

United States Imports of Copper - January 2023 Data - 1989-2022 Historical (tradingeconomics.com)

Copper Statistics and Information | U.S. Geological Survey (usgs.gov)


Published on 2/20/2023 (30 days ago) Dr. Annie Newsletters