Next time you make a call on your cell phone, drive a car and kick up the AC, remember to thank copper.
In the words of Jonathan Ward, spokesperson for Resolution Copper, “Without copper, we would all be living in the Stone Age.”
Thanks to copper mining, we remain happily embedded in the 21st Century, but that’s not all we should be thankful for. In our small portion of the desert, Arizona mining has a huge impact on our state, on the Southwest and on the rest of the world. From modern luxuries to renewable energy to the integrity of our national security, copper is one of Arizona’s most valuable export industries and commodities.
Copper is king in sustainable development
From the time it was discovered in 8700 B.C., copper was the reigning, sole metal known to man for almost five millennia.
As a result of its excellent electrical conductivity, copper’s most common use is in electrical equipment such as wiring and motors. Because it corrodes slowly, copper is used in roofing, guttering and as rain spouts on buildings. It is also used in plumbing and in cookware and cooking utensils.
With even more time behind us, mankind continues to turn to this most precious of metals as the demand for renewable resources rapidly increases.
“As the world transitions away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, demand for copper is expected to rise globally,” Ward explains. “As a major copper producing region, the State of Arizona’s copper demand can be expected to increase accordingly. In particular, as solar energy systems and electric vehicles become cheaper, the demand for those technologies increases, and since they require a lot of copper, that helps boost its demand as a global commodity.”
In fact, according to the Copper Development Association, renewables containing copper cable, wiring and tubing can produce a copper usage intensity ranging from four to six times higher than traditional electric generation and fossil fuels.
What renewables are we talking about here? Wind turbines, solar photovoltaic systems, geothermal and hydropower. These renewable applications reported an increase in usage from 8.3 percent to 12.1 percent between 2008 and 2012 alone, according to CDA.
Copper essentially dominates the makeup of wind turbines, collectively responsible for producing 64 gigawatts (4.5 percent of demand) of electricity in the U.S. per year.
“Copper isn’t only utilized inside wind turbines the size of a city bus, which are constructed with copper coils, windings and power connectors to bring power down from the poles,” explains Stephen Higgins, vice president of sales and marketing at Freeport McMoRan. “It’s also in the grounding wire to protect from lightning strikes.”
Similar to the rise in renewable wind energy, statistics demonstrate that the demand for solar is currently soaring with a compounded annual growth rate between a 60 percent and 70 percent. And, like the monolithic turbines dotting Interstate-10 headed west, neighboring photovoltaic systems are also primarily dependent on copper with approximately 5.5 tons of copper per MW.
If copper is king, think of solar in Arizona as its queen where renewable energy is concerned.
“Arizona is the sunniest state in our nation,” Ward says, “in addition to being a leading copper producer, it seems only natural that our state’s copper should be used in solar power to meet rising demand for clean energy. By harnessing the power of the desert sun using the copper in solar panels, we can lower our energy bills and have cleaner air at the same time.”
While copper heavily contributes to creating renewable energy sources, there’s another predominate green technology trend on the rise: the EV — electric vehicle. Did you know that whereas a traditional gasoline vehicle contains 50 pounds of copper, the average electric vehicle contains 183 pounds of copper, according to the Arizona Mining Association? It’s more than simply the EVs alone, however, that place a high solicitation on copper.
“EVs are a driver behind many markets,” says Dave Sferra, manager or market analysis for Freeport-McMoRan Inc. “EVs need charging stations, which means additional copper content. EV power walls and grids are predominately copper installations, whether as home charging stations or quick chargers on highways (which are also copper intensive).”
All the king’s horses and all the king’s impact
Although copper clearly impacts the growth and prosperity of renewable energy sources, there are infinitely more areas and industries in which copper is preponderated. In fact, 65 percent of the United States’ copper output is attributed to Arizona mining. Not only is this a higher percentage than any other state, according to the AMA, hard rock mining also yields an economic impact of $4.29 billion for Arizona — the majority of which is from copper mining.
Copper mining impacts Arizona’s local economy as an influential export, as well as creating a surplus of mining jobs. The influence of copper in supporting positive economic growth and job creation is not confined to our state.
Building construction, for example, is one of the highest copper consuming markets in the U.S. and Canada at 42 percent, according to a 2016 International Wrought Copper Council report. Perhaps not surprisingly, coming in second is consumer and general products at 22 percent.
“Energy consumption is certainly high, in the U.S.,” Ward says, “with electrical devices and appliances such as air conditioning units, refrigeration (including refrigerators in the home), televisions and home electronics.”
Other top copper usage industries include national security, industrial machinery, aerospace and even healthcare.
“Although public health is not a huge copper consuming area yet,” Higgins says, “copper has anti-microbial quality. Hospital-acquired infections can be significantly reduced by copper-touch surfaces.”
And, adds Ward, “Copper is a fundamental element of modern medical devices and used in electrified scalpels that self-cauterize during surgeries.”
Even beyond public health, copper can be a preventative measure for potential public health issues.
“Copper pipes in plumbing last far longer than plastic and they completely avoid the kind of lead contamination problems that have plagued Flint, Michigan,” Ward says. “Copper plumbing also prevents bacterial infections. such as Legionnaires’ disease.”
Copper crowned jewels
“One relatively obscure use of copper in Arizona is for hand-crafted metal art,” says Ward, “Copper has been used in art for millennia, from jewelry to sculpture.”
From the Valley to Sedona and Flagstaff and Tucson, you can find diverse examples of copper artistry.
“Copper doesn’t rust and is easily made watertight,” Ward says. “Outdoor copper art ages with a natural patina that gives it a unique rustic charm. In addition to fountains made of 100 percent copper, Joseph Ward also crafts a variety of indoor art made of the red metal, including wall hangings and decorative fixtures for homes.”
Copper is certainly beautiful to behold as an artistic expression, magnanimous in its diversity, but there is something even more impressive about this native-rich metal.
“Copper is 100 percent recyclable,” says Higgins. “It can be recycled over and over again.”
This is a remarkable distinction compared with other conductive material.
“Moving forward,” Higgins says, “copper will continue to play a major role in energy efficiency and applications.”