December 8, 2022
  • December 8, 2022

Copper is back in force in Arizona and will fuel the clean economy

By on March 13, 2022 0

OPINION: A cleaner, low-carbon economy simply cannot happen without more copper

By Fred Duval

The clean economy will happen with electric vehicles, wind and solar power, and improved battery storage. And the indispensable ingredient of energy storage is copper because of its unique ability to conduct heat and electricity. A cleaner, low-carbon economy simply cannot happen without more copper.

For example, an average electric vehicle uses 200 pounds. A solar panel contains 5.5 tonnes of copper per megawatt. Wind farms need it, as does power transmission.

But the current and projected global supply of copper is insufficient to fuel this transition to clean energy. The United States now has a significant copper deficiency and is a net importer. The future of clean energy has a mineral obstacle.

Shortages have already caused copper prices to double in the past two years and demand will increase by 50% over the next two decades. And soaring prices drives up the cost of the clean energy transition, making it less competitive with coal and gas.

Goldman, Sachs called the situation “a crisis of molecules” and concluded that without more copper, the clean energy economy “won’t happen”.

Enter Arizona.

The Copper State is back

In 1910, a quarter of Arizona workers were employed in mining, but by the 1980s the numbers had dwindled and the sector was struggling. And now the Copper State is back.

While long-established players continue copper production at traditional sites such as Clifton-Morenci and Hayden, new copper exploration is taking place at developments both large and small.

The proposed large Resolution Mine outside Superior on the former Magma Mine site, produce up to 25% of America’s needs.

Meanwhile, producers are developing smaller deposits that were not previously economically viable. These include Bell, Carlotta, Florence, Arizona Sonoran and Excelsior.

The “copper triangle” between Superior, Clifton and Cochise County is rich in copper, mined for many decades, has the labor force and physical infrastructure to mine and transport copper to foundries and the market.

Copper deposits are a locational economic advantage for Arizona, similar to what agriculture is to the Midwest and international shipping ports are to the coasts.

Environmental standards will be key

The new copper will create thousands of good family jobs in struggling rural Arizona, increase Arizona’s tax revenue by billions of dollars, and provide a powerful export to enhance our economic growth.

But there are many threshold issues that need to be addressed as we move forward. Copper companies must demonstrate a secure water supply, responsible mine tailings management, and should be expected to “go green” with electric vehicles and new carbon capture technologies.

Additionally, they must demonstrate the highest standards of consultation with neighboring communities and those with a long-standing heritage on the ground.

As an environmental and human rights advocate, I have opposed many copper developments. Regardless of economic attractiveness, not all copper sites should warrant mining. It must be done by responsible companies, in the right places, respecting the right standards.

But I also strongly believe in the transition to a low-carbon economy to save the planet. Clean energy demand for copper will occur whether or not Arizona produces it.

If not Arizona, China fills the void

China, the largest producer of mined and refined copper, is rushing to fill the void. So will other nations that do not adhere to American labor, human rights, or environmental standards.

Moreover, when will we learn the lessons of history? America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil has driven us to war. Europe’s dependence today on Russian gas weakens their leverage vis-à-vis Ukraine. Is reliance on strategic minerals the next step?

Those who generically oppose copper development everywhere while advocating for a clean energy future allow bad actors – environmental outlaws and human rights violators – to fill the market void. And create American weakness.

Can we morally peek into a clean energy horizon while turning a blind eye to this horrible fact? Or are we ready to give up cell phones, computers, wind and solar power?

Arizona’s 20th century economy had the original 5 “Cs”, but Arizona’s 21st century economy includes computer chips and clean energy. It will take new copper to activate them.

Opportunity is knocking on Arizona’s door a second time. We’d be stupid to lock it down.

Fred DuVal is chairman of Excelsior Mining and a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, former gubernatorial candidate and former senior White House official. He is a member of the Arizona Republic Board of Contributors.