22 megatonnes of copper at the core of a climate-neutral European 2050 economy

Copper as a key driver in the energy transition

Spring 2019

D Debusscher - T Jezdinsky - F Nuno - D Walton - H De Keulenaer


The energy transition, essential for a deep decarbonisation of the economy, already benefits from a broad range of cost-effective solutions. No matter what the mix of solutions will look like in 2050, there will be a shift from a largely fuel-based energy economy to one that relies on renewable energy systems and energy-efficient end-use equipment.

Thanks to its excellent electrical and thermal conductivity, copper plays a central role in this transition. Copper facilitates the production of renewable electricity as well as the electrification of transport, heating and cooling. It is a key material in battery production. Moreover, increasing the cross-section of electrical conductors reduces energy losses, which is one of the reasons why energy-efficient equipment is generally more copper intensive.

  • Copper plays an important role in renewable energy generation – such as solar, wind, tidal, hydro, biomass and geothermal – by converting renewables into electricity or heat. In addition, the obvious trend towards distributed generation and a decentralised system relies on more storage and increasing demand side flexibility solutions, which often rely on copper-based technologies.
  • A low-carbon future is not possible without smart and connected electrical and thermal grids. Copper is a key metal to making these grids smaller, smarter, more flexible and more energy-efficient.
  • Buildings are gaining importance as an active component in the transition towards smart energy systems – providing demand flexibility and hosting increased renewable energy source (RES) capacities. For a building to become intelligent and connected, it needs copper.
  • Beyond the energy sector, copper is a key component in new, low-carbon modes of transportation, such as electric vehicles, playing an important role in their batteries and control systems as well as the charging infrastructure.
  • In industry, the increasing share of renewables in the energy mix opens up a large potential for electrification of heat processes.
  • In the heating and cooling sector, copper lead to cost-effective reductions in energy use in the range of 20-30% thanks to its excellent conductivity.

How much copper will be needed?

The figure below illustrates that the energy transition will require an estimated 22 megatonnes of additional copper by 2050, representing roughly five years of current EU copper demand [1, 2]:

This estimate of about 22 megatonnes is the consolidated result of various underlying assessments, based on:

  1. The EU 2050 “High-RES” scenario wherever possible, which mainly takes the electrification angle and is most aligned with the EU 2050 energy roadmap, or other models that consider a high penetration of renewables and their impact on overall electrification;
  2. Additional assumptions about the uptake of alternative emerging technologies and about socio-economic trends, to ensure a conservative counterbalance in these estimates.

The following chapter provides a sector-per-sector analysis of the additional copper required to decarbonise 11 (sub-)sectors.

How copper drives the energy transition in each (sub-)sector

Power generation

Renewable power generation: The main driver of the energy transition

Electricity from renewable energy sources (RES) has been leading the energy transition and will continue to do so. All scenarios in the EU 2050 energy roadmap imply a radical large-scale electrification of the energy system driven by the deployment of renewables – growing its share in the anticipated installed net power capacity to 53% in the “conservative reference scenario” up to 86% in the “High-RES scenario”. Most renewable power generation technologies are copper-intensive, especially offshore wind, ocean and solar installations. These require up to 12 times the amount of copper compared to conventional power generation, due to:

  • their distributed nature and technological layout, for which they require four times more copper per megawatt installed [3]; and
  • their weather dependency, for which they require three times more megawatts installed capacity to compensate for the downtime hours [4].

As a result, power generation, which was a small market for copper in the 1990s, is projected to require 6.2 megatonnes in the coming three decades. As underlying baseline for these estimates we considered the “High-RES” scenario of the EU 2050 roadmap as a likely solution from a political perspective, with significant increase in total installed capacity.

The deployment of renewable electricity will also drive the decarbonisation of other sectors such as heating, transport and industry, either through direct use of electricity or indirectly through the production of synthetic fuels. Both routes present a major opportunity for copper. In addition, the need for more flexibility in the system to better integrate renewable generation will drive demand response and energy storage; both also significant copper drivers.


Transmission grids: Communicating vessels with power generation

Integrating more distributed renewable generation in the grid requires investments in the transmission infrastructure. In the EU 2050 “High-RES scenario”, the anticipated investment in the upgrade of the transmission grid between 2011-2050 adds up to € 420 billion. The amount of copper involved however is less straightforward to assess and will depend on various political and regulatory choices and their – sometimes opposite – implications. Yet, when it comes to copper deployment, transmission and generation seem to act as communicating vessels.

A good example to consider is self-consumption of RES. When self-consumption is encouraged, it leads to lower energy flows and thus less grid capacity. At the same time, it increases the number of decentralised generation installations, which calls for stronger grids to deal with fluctuations. Part of the solution to improve grid stability lies in improved interconnection between European countries. Bigger energy transfers between regions help to guarantee equilibrium and counteract fluctuations, and facilitate access to cheaper generated energy and better use of intermittent RES at the most convenient places in Europe.

As an alternative to electricity transmission, renewable energy could be converted locally to hydrogen, methane or synthetic fuels as a form of storage, notwithstanding the necessity to cope with conversion losses of typically 30-50%.

In the upgrade of the terrestrial transmission grid, it can be assumed that overhead lines and underground cables will continue to be made of aluminium. But submarine interconnections to integrate more EU offshore wind generation into the system can be a large driver for copper, especially with copper-intensive direct current (DC) lines and converters [6].

Only taking into account these submarine grid upgrades within the EU 2050 “High-RES scenario” would require about 1.3 megatonnes more copper for transmission.

Distribution networks: All topologies need copper — somewhere [7]

The role of copper in the electricity distribution grids of the future will depend mainly on the development path Europe will evolve into, which could be centralised or decentralised. In a centralised pathway, the increase in demand is met by mainly centralised generation, requiring a significant increase in distribution grid capacity. This distribution grid will be dimensioned according to the peak load demand. In a decentralised pathway, where generation is decentralised, and load and generation are balanced more locally (e.g. with the aid of significant storage and demand response), dimensioning of the grid is according to the average load.

Within the EU 2050 “High-RES scenario”, significant upgrade and improvement of distribution networks including smartening of the grid is foreseen [8].

The additional copper in the distribution networks is needed for grid expansion (more customers), but mainly for grid reinforcement (more peak load per customer). Looking at copper additions for reinforcements, the largest part is due to additions of lines and cables (more than 85%) [9].

Taking the assumption of a more centralised pathway to secure RES integration and balancing, this results in about 3.7 megatonnes more copper in distribution networks until 2050.

The trend towards further optimisation of the distribution grids involving the application of demand side flexibility solutions and local storage is obvious, with the effect that less grid reinforcement might ultimately be necessary. In any case, demand side flexibility and storage solutions often rely on copper-based technologies, all of which will compensate to a large extent the lower amount of additional copper needed for a smarter and more decentralised grid.


Non-residential: Waking the sleeping giant of building automation [10]

The massive roll-out of building automation and control systems (BACS) over the European non-residential building stock presents another opportunity for copper. BACS can control a building’s mechanical, electrical, plumbing, lighting, HVAC and security systems as well as its elevators and escalators more efficiently and so reduce the building’s energy consumption and environmental footprint. They do this through an array of sensors and controllers via a user interface or dashboard.

With an energy savings potential of up to 22%, which equates to a reduction of 2.4 Gt of CO2 per year for the entire EU building stock, at a benefit-to-cost ratio of 11 to 1, the business case for BACS is undeniable. In the recent revision of the EPBD (2018), the EU tries to wake this “sleeping giant”, mainly by a mandatory roll-out of BACS functionalities in large non-residential buildings and via incentives in residential buildings; and via the establishment of an optional common Smart Readiness Indicator.

Large as the energy saving potential is, the additional copper demand for this sector is not massive; BACS are estimated to have an additional direct copper demand of just below 0.5 megatonnes in non-residential buildings, mainly for extra cabling and electrical power actuators. The indirect effect of BACS on copper usage will however be significant, yet more difficult to quantify. Additional and significant copper usage is certainly expected because more automation and better control attracts more technologies and points of use of those technologies, many of which require copper. The further implementation of BACS will also lead to the increasing use of renewables such as wind and solar energy, which are highly copper-intensive. To summarize, copper in buildings will not be massive in weight, but will have a massive impact on transforming buildings from mere passive energy consumers into intelligent and active players in the transition of the EU energy market.

Homes: There’s more to renovation than insulation [11]

In the homes market, copper deployment will be driven by the changed perspective on both the speed and the type of renovation. The acceleration of the (energy) renovation of the building stock is mentioned as the first strategic building block of the EU 2050 long-term strategy. At the same time, policy and markets are starting to recognise that there’s more to renovation than insulation; and that measures related to the technical building system can provide significant energy savings and emission reductions at very low cost. Many of those measures are a driver for copper in the construction market, either directly (such as a heat pump or rooftop photovoltaics), or indirectly (for instance when home automation facilitates the penetration of renewables in the grid).

Just like commercial and tertiary buildings, the average home in Europe will steadily become smarter. An adequate electrical installation is a prerequisite for the cost-effective implementation of smart technologies at a later stage. Compared to a conventional electrical installation consisting of circuits with sockets, switches and light points, a more advanced home automation system requires an additional 10 kg of copper. This also includes technologies such as roll-down shutters, intercom, telephony, computer network, fans, and music distribution. Since there are approximately 220 million households in Europe, gradually renovating the entire home market until 2050 will lead to a requirement of 2.2 megatonnes of copper [12, 13].


Electromobility: The biggest new market of all [14]

Electric vehicles are expected to become about 2-3 times more copper intensive than combustion cars: at least 44 kg with new expected battery technologies compared to 22 kg with current internal combustion powertrains.

Since the entire car fleet in Europe is predicted to increase and the ultimate share of Plug-In-Hybrids and Battery-Electric-Vehicles depends on economic-political decisions, we could assume on the high end that this would require more than 10 megatonnes of copper in the period up to 2050 [15].

In practice however, copper requirements for this market may be significantly lower due to many unpredictable trends. Car sharing and autonomous driving, for example, will reduce the number of cars on the road, but at the same time will limit the life expectancy of each vehicle since the same number of kilometres will be served by fewer cars. From the copper perspective, end-of-life materials recovery will become a key area to invest in. Another trend is the maturing of battery technologies, in which we expect copper use to further reduce over the coming decades. All those trends are at an experimental stage but are likely to evolve at a fast pace, and their impact is therefore difficult to assess.

Hence an educated guess that anticipates the above mentioned trends leads to 5.4 megatonnes more copper for new electrical passenger cars until 2050.

Goods transport: Less & local [16]

With 13 million trucks [17] on the EU’s roads (five times the annual market), the theoretical potential to fully electrify road freight transport would be 1.75 megatonnes. In practice, alternatives to electrification of goods transport will also play their part. In addition, the sharing economy may lead to less and more local consumption, and hence less goods transport. A realistic scenario will reduce this figure at least by half, to 875 kilotonnes.

Passenger transport: The undecided race between individual and collective transport [18]

By 2050, about 800,000 buses on the road in the EU will be zero-emission and will keep playing an essential part in providing reliable public transport in and between cities. In addition to lower energy consumption and a lower total cost of ownership, electric buses contribute to making cities much cleaner: less noise and air pollution will significantly improve public health and make cities more viable. Considering CAPEX parity for electric buses well before 2050, we can expect the fleet to largely electrify, leading to a copper demand of 435 kilotonnes (for vehicles and charging infrastructure).

However, autonomous driving of personal electric vehicles, mostly outside cities, will compete with buses. In addition, other emerging technologies such as fuel-cell buses are expected to enter the market well before 2050. A conservative estimation of the copper potential in this market leads us to one-third of the maximum potential, which is 145 kilotonnes.


Electroheating: Rising alongside green combustion [19]

At present, EU industry uses 150 Mtoe/year of fossil heat through oil, coal and gas. This is equivalent to 1,800 TWh/year. If this industrial heat demand is converted to electroheating technologies, around 750,000 industrial furnaces will be needed, or a new copper demand of 1.5 megatonnes (at 2 tonnes of copper per furnace for the furnace, its power supply and cabling). Irrespective of the increasing renewables in the energy mix, and the fact that switching to electricity reduces final energy by a factor of two, it is highly unlikely that industry will convert from largely combustion technology to electric furnaces, even in a strongly carbon-constrained world. Green combustion using bioenergy or hydrogen will also play an important role. For the moment, we assume that electricity and the two green combustion alternatives will play equal roles, leading to 250,000 furnaces and a copper demand of 500 kilotonnes.

Electric motor systems: Efficiency and electrification [20]

The European annual motor market (all motor sizes) is 15 million units with an average copper content of 5.3 kg/unit. Annual copper use in this market is 79 kilotonnes. This figure is expected to increase because of two drivers: the increased (partly mandated) efficiency requirements; and a growth in the market due to motorisation following electrification. Copper use in the future EU motor market is expected to grow by 1.5 megatonnes over the period 2018-2050 assuming that the current motor topology share remains consistent. Considering that the average motor lifetime is around 15 years, and that copper in motors has an almost full collection and recycling rate, the demand for primary copper could be reduced to half of this amount. Furthermore, alternative high-efficiency motor technologies (e.g. permanent magnet) might increase their share, hence we can further reduce this figure to 500 kilotonnes.

Space heating: The low-hanging fruit for decarbonisation [21]

In the EU there are still 143 million fossil fuel boilers and direct electric heating systems. Today, several copper-intensive solutions are available to convert these into low-carbon heating solutions to decarbonise heating and cooling in buildings. These include two different heat pump technologies, biomass boiler, pellet stove, solar thermal and domestic CHP, apart from further usage of district heating coming from combined power generation facilities. The market will decide between various decarbonised heating solutions, and ECI takes no view which low-carbon solution should be preferred. On average, these solutions require 17 kg per appliance, which is 11 additional kilograms over the 6 kg of copper used in a conventional heating solution, leading to an extra demand of 1.6 megatonnes. This figure is likely to be an overestimate, since alternative heat conductor materials can also be used, and buildings in Europe are getting more efficient and have lower heat demands. Hence we can adjust to about half of this amount or an additional 800 kilotonnes of copper in heating systems until 2050.


How to add 22 megatonnes of copper to the EU’s energy system?

Adding 22 megatonnes of copper to the EU’s 82.1 megatonnes of copper in use represents an increase of about 27% of the currently used amount [22]. Logistic growth results in a plausible scenario based on the curves below [23]:

The energy transition is already happening. Based on installed wind and PV capacity, grid extensions, investments into energy efficiency, the electrification of transport and the decarbonisation of the heating & cooling sector, already 2 megatonnes have been added to the EU’s energy system. We estimate the current market for copper related to the energy transition to be 300 kilotonnes per year, i.e. about 8% of annual demand [24].

The above curves demonstrate that the period between 2030 and 2040 will be critical for a successful energy transition and a climate-neutral Europe by 2050. During this period, we would need capital stock in the above 11 applications that could result in peak additions of 900 kilotonnes of copper per year.

During that same period, equipment that we have added up to now will start to reach its end-of-life, so it is important that we ensure circularity of these solutions. The EU’s copper stock of 104 megatonnes after the energy transition represents an asset base of € 587 billion that needs to be well managed [25].

The above represents only one of many possible scenarios for the coming 31 years. It is a future that could happen but it is very much more likely that the Europe of 2050 will differ significantly in many aspects from what is described here. The proverbial saying goes that plans are useless but planning is indispensable. Read this paper in this spirit [26].

The long-term availability of copper

The obvious next question to ask is whether 22 megatonnes of copper are available on the planet, now – and in the future?

Calculations concerning the amount of copper available in the world are based on the concept of reserves and resources. Copper reserves are deposits that have been discovered, evaluated and assessed to be profitable; they amount to 720 megatonnes [27]. Copper resources include the already discovered reserves, plus predicted unexploited deposits based on geological surveys. They are estimated to exceed 5,000 megatonnes [28].

Even reserves and resources don’t paint the full picture though, because there is a key property of copper that also has to be taken into consideration, and which is likely to play a significant role in the energy transition. This is its recyclability. Copper is one of the few materials that can be recycled repeatedly without loss of performance. There is also no difference in the quality of recycled copper (secondary production) and mined copper (primary production). Depending on market conditions, lower-grade coppers can in certain circumstances even be upcycled to electrical conductivity applications.

The recycling of copper is also energy efficient – bulk copper applications require 85% less energy than primary production. The infrastructure is in place too; during the last decade about half of the EU’s annual copper use came from recycled sources (and is increasing).

Thus the global copper reserves of 720 million tonnes and global copper resources of 5,000 million tonnes, coupled with the recyclability of copper [29], clearly support the long-term availability of copper for the energy transition, and show that finding and adding 22 megatonnes by 2050 seems perfectly feasible [30].


[1] The scenario in this paper is applicable to the EU-28. Throughout the paper, the qualifier ‘European’ refers to the European Union of 28 Member States.

[2 EU annual copper use is around 4 megatonnes: https://copperalliance.eu/about-us/europes-copper-industry/

[3] Slide 11 of http://copper.fyi/ETImpact shows copper intensity per MW for different generation technologies.

[4] For typical capacity factors in power generation: https://ucdenver.instructure.com/courses/342680/files/3776710/download

[5] For more information about copper in transmission grids: http://copper.fyi/ETImpact

[6] The e-Highway2050 project anticipates a need for 50-60 TW x km undersea line capacity by 2050.

[7] For more information about copper in distribution grids: https://www.slideshare.net/sustenergy/18-0110-rev2-dnv-gl-report-eci-future-distributions-grids-workshops-luis-147065553

[8] In the EU 2050 “High-RES scenario” the biggest infrastructure costs relate to the distribution grid upgrade with an anticipated € 1.775 bn between 2011 and 2050.

[9] The ratio of copper lines and cables versus aluminium lines and cables is assumed at 40%.

[10] Article: Copper: The enabling material for BACS http://www.leonardo-energy.info/2018/08/copper-enabling-material-for-bacs.html

[11] More information about copper in home electrical installations: https://www.slideshare.net/sustenergy/copper-usage-in-electrical-installations-in-the-home

[12] According to Eurostat, there are 220 million households in the EU, which we adopt as a proxy for the number of dwellings: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-datasets/-/lfst_hhnhwhtc

[13] EED article 4 requires Member States in 2012 for the first time, to set out national strategies for the renovation of their building stocks. The wish of MEPS is to push for renovating the existing 2014 building stock gradually until 2050.

[14] For more information about copper in electric vehicles: https://copper.fyi/CuinEV

[15] In all e-Highway2050 project scenarios, the total EU car fleet will increase to about 350 million in 2050. Depending on their scenarios, BEV/PHEV could account for 117-277 million vehicles.

[16] More about copper in trucks: https://copper.fyi/CuinTrucks

[17] 6.5 million units registered inside EU28 countries; including trucks from Russia, Turkey and Ukraine increases this total to 13 million. By 2050, all trucks circulating in the EU should be climate-neutral.

[18] More about copper in buses: https://copper.fyi/CuinBuses

[19] Copper in electroheating furnaces: https://copper.fyi/eheat

[20] Copper in electric motors: https://copper.fyi/CuinMotors

[21] Copper in heating appliances: http://copper.fyi/CuinHeat

[22] Source: https://copperalliance.eu/uploads/2019/01/eu-28-copper-stocks-and-flows.png

[23] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Fran%C3%A7ois_Verhulst

[24] For more information on the progress of the energy transition: https://factchecker.io/2019/03/19/the-energy-transition-is-in-progress/

[25] Based on LME’s copper price of March 18, 2019 of 6410 $ or 5651 € per tonne. www.lme.com/en-gb/metals/non-ferrous/copper

[26] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/dwight_d_eisenhower_164720

[27] U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, February 2017.

[28] U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2016.

[29] The stock of copper in use can be estimated at 400 megatonnes.

[30] When extrapolating this figure to the world, using electricity consumption, energy consumption, population or GDP as a multiplier, we’d need 5 - 15 times 22 megatonnes for the world energy transition (https://factchecker.io/2019/03/29/extrapolation-eu-to-world/)

Slide presentation

A short presentation on this scenario can be viewed or downloaded from Slideshare:


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  • June 2019: Initial public release