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Are Copper Prices in a Supercycle? A 120-Year Perspective

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Are Copper Prices in a Supercycle

Are Copper Prices in a Supercycle? A 120-Year Perspective

There are multiple factors that could fuel the price of copper to record highs, including the global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. trillion-dollar stimulus package, and the ongoing energy transition.

As a result of this, some global banks are predicting a supercycle for the metal, i.e., a sustained spell of abnormally strong demand growth that producers struggle to match, sparking a rally in prices that can last decades.

To put the current trend into perspective, the above graphic uses data from the U.S. Federal Reserve and consultancy Roskill to picture copper’s previous rallies over the last 120 years.

Historic EventsPrice In USD/Tonne
1914 - World War I$11,648
1930 - Great Depression$4,690
1942 - World War II$3,514
1973 - Oil Crisis$9,196
1997 - Asian Crisis $2,420
2008 - Financial Crisis$11,000
2020 - COVID-19$4,700

The Rise of a Super Power: U.S. Supercycle

Industrialization and urbanization in the United States sparked the first supercycle of the 20th century. Machines replaced hand labor as the main means of manufacturing and people moved to cities in record numbers. Immigration and natural growth caused the U.S. population to rise from 40 million in 1870 to 100 million in 1916.

“What’s right about America is that although we have a mess of problems, we have great capacity – intellect and resources – to do some thing about them.” – Henry Ford II

The value of goods produced in the U.S. increased almost tenfold between 1870 and 1916. The cycle was succeeded by the Great Depression, with a sharp decline in world consumption that brought the copper price to the lowest since 1894 ($4,690 per tonne).

Pax Americana: The Post-War Copper Supercycle

During WWII, the U.S. government considered copper a critical metal to the military. In order to conserve copper supply, the use of copper in building construction was prohibited, specific products with copper were limited to 60% of its previous war usage, and the War Production Board allocated supply to specific manufacturers.

At the center of global copper markets, the London Metals Exchange fixed the price of copper at £56/tonne ($3,514 per tonne, adjusted to 2021 inflation) during the war and the government issued permits to control purchases. The official price would rise after the war due to increased demand from reconstruction and the rise of the automobile, but price controls were not lifted until 1953.

The United States, Soviet Union, Western European, and East Asian countries experienced unusual growth after World War II. The reconstruction of Europe and Japan powered the commodities market and despite the scale of material damage, industrial equipment and plants survived the war remarkably intact.

“I was very lucky, I was part of the post-war period when everything had to be redone.” – Pierre Cardin

The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 further strengthened demand as countries commenced strategic stockpiling programs. In January 1951, the US government imposed a ceiling price of 24.6¢/lb on domestic copper which remained in place until the end of 1952. Price controls held U.S. domestic prices lower than world prices, creating shortages.

According to assets managing firm Winton, U.S. prices remained lower after the release of these controls, as producers sought to prevent the substitution of copper wiring with cheaper materials such as aluminum. This two-tier market – producer prices for U.S. consumers and LME prices for everyone else – was in place until 1970.

The Pax Americana spanned from the end of the Second World War in 1945 to the early 1970s, when the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system and the 1973 oil crisis caused high unemployment and high inflation in most of the Western world. Prices jumped to $9,196 per tonne in 1973.

The Four Tigers and The Rise of China: Asian Supercycles

The massive growth of East Asia nations drove the next two supercycles of the century: (1983-1994) and the 2000s commodities boom (2002-2014).

Specifically, Japan played a central role in the third supercycle of the century. The country achieved record economic growth, averaging 10% a year until the seventies. Its economy grew from one less productive than Italy to the third-largest in the world, behind only the United States and the Soviet Union. Growth was especially strong in heavy industry and in advanced technology.

The most recent cycle started in 2002 after China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) and started to modernize its economy. The country entered a phase of roaring economic growth, fueled by a rollout of infrastructure and cities on an unprecedented scale. Copper price reached $9,000 per tonne in May 2006, pressured by strong Chinese demand.

Are Copper Prices in a Supercycle?

Previous copper rallies reveal a pattern of broad-based growth, industrialization, and new technologies can help drive the demand and prices. Is the global economy entering such a phase?

As world economies emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and decarbonization is top-of-mind in many countries, copper is set to play a key role as an electrical conductor. Electric and hybrid cars use more copper than regular gasoline vehicles – 165lbs, 110lbs and 55lbs respectively. Renewables also demand more copper: A single wind farm can contain between 4 million and 15 million pounds of metal.

The copper price hit a record high in May 2021 ($10,476 a tonne) and trading house Trafigura Group, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America expect the metal to extend its recent gains. Whether it will be enough for a new supercycle is yet to be seen.

Hindsight is 20/20 but the future looks electric.

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Electrification

Visualizing the World’s Largest Copper Producers

Many new technologies critical to the energy transition rely on copper. Here are the world’s largest copper producers.

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Visualizing the World’s Largest Copper Producers

Man has relied on copper since prehistoric times. It is a major industrial metal with many applications due to its high ductility, malleability, and electrical conductivity.

Many new technologies critical to fighting climate change, like solar panels and wind turbines, rely on the red metal.

But where does the copper we use come from? Using the U.S. Geological Survey’s data, the above infographic lists the world’s largest copper producing countries in 2021.

The Countries Producing the World’s Copper

Many everyday products depend on minerals, including mobile phones, laptops, homes, and automobiles. Incredibly, every American requires 12 pounds of copper each year to maintain their standard of living.

North, South, and Central America dominate copper production, as these regions collectively host 15 of the 20 largest copper mines.

Chile is the top copper producer in the world, with 27% of global copper production. In addition, the country is home to the two largest mines in the world, Escondida and Collahuasi.

Chile is followed by another South American country, Peru, responsible for 10% of global production.

RankCountry2021E Copper Production (Million tonnes)Share
#1🇨🇱 Chile5.627%
#2🇵🇪 Peru2.210%
#3🇨🇳 China1.88%
#4🇨🇩 DRC 1.88%
#5🇺🇸 United States1.26%
#6🇦🇺 Australia0.94%
#7🇷🇺 Russia0.84%
#8🇿🇲 Zambia0.84%
#9🇮🇩 Indonesia0.84%
#10🇲🇽 Mexico0.73%
#11🇨🇦 Canada0.63%
#12🇰🇿 Kazakhstan0.52%
#13🇵🇱 Poland0.42%
🌍 Other countries2.813%
🌐 World total21.0100%

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and China share third place, with 8% of global production each. Along with being a top producer, China also consumes 54% of the world’s refined copper.

Copper’s Role in the Green Economy

Technologies critical to the energy transition, such as EVs, batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines require much more copper than conventional fossil fuel based counterparts.

For example, copper usage in EVs is up to four times more than in conventional cars. According to the Copper Alliance, renewable energy systems can require up to 12x more copper compared to traditional energy systems.

Technology2020 Installed Capacity (megawatts)Copper Content (2020, tonnes)2050p Installed Capacity (megawatts)Copper Content (2050p, tonnes)
Solar PV126,735 MW633,675372,000 MW1,860,000
Onshore Wind105,015 MW451,565202,000 MW868,600
Offshore Wind6,013 MW57,72545,000 MW432,000

With these technologies’ rapid and large-scale deployment, copper demand from the energy transition is expected to increase by nearly 600% by 2030.

As the transition to renewable energy and electrification speeds up, so will the pressure for more copper mines to come online.

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Electrification

Visualizing the World’s Largest Hydroelectric Dams

Hydroelectric dams generate 40% of the world’s renewable energy, the largest of any type. View this infographic to learn more.

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Visualizing the World’s Largest Hydroelectric Dams

Did you know that hydroelectricity is the world’s biggest source of renewable energy? According to recent figures from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), it represents 40% of total capacity, ahead of solar (28%) and wind (27%).

This type of energy is generated by hydroelectric power stations, which are essentially large dams that use the water flow to spin a turbine. They can also serve secondary functions such as flow monitoring and flood control.

To help you learn more about hydropower, we’ve visualized the five largest hydroelectric dams in the world, ranked by their maximum output.

Overview of the Data

The following table lists key information about the five dams shown in this graphic, as of 2021. Installed capacity is the maximum amount of power that a plant can generate under full load.

CountryDamRiverInstalled Capacity
(gigawatts)
Dimensions
(meters)
🇨🇳 ChinaThree Gorges DamYangtze River22.5181 x 2,335
🇧🇷 Brazil / 🇵🇾 ParaguayItaipu DamParana River14.0196 x 7,919
🇨🇳 ChinaXiluodu DamJinsha River13.9286 x 700
🇧🇷 BrazilBelo Monte DamXingu River11.290 X 3,545
🇻🇪 VenezuelaGuri DamCaroni River10.2162 x 7,426

At the top of the list is China’s Three Gorges Dam, which opened in 2003. It has an installed capacity of 22.5 gigawatts (GW), which is close to double the second-place Itaipu Dam.

In terms of annual output, the Itaipu Dam actually produces about the same amount of electricity. This is because the Parana River has a low seasonal variance, meaning the flow rate changes very little throughout the year. On the other hand, the Yangtze River has a significant drop in flow for several months of the year.

For a point of comparison, here is the installed capacity of the world’s three largest solar power plants, also as of 2021:

  • Bhadla Solar Park, India: 2.2 GW
  • Hainan Solar Park, China: 2.2 GW
  • Pavagada Solar Park, India: 2.1 GW

Compared to our largest dams, solar plants have a much lower installed capacity. However, in terms of cost (cents per kilowatt-hour), the two are actually quite even.

Closer Look: Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges Dam is an engineering marvel, costing over $32 billion to construct. To wrap your head around its massive scale, consider the following facts:

  • The Three Gorges Reservoir (which feeds the dam) contains 39 trillion kg of water (42 billion tons)
  • In terms of area, the reservoir spans 400 square miles (1,045 square km)
  • The mass of this reservoir is large enough to slow the Earth’s rotation by 0.06 microseconds

Of course, any man-made structure this large is bound to have a profound impact on the environment. In a 2010 study, it was found that the dam has triggered over 3,000 earthquakes and landslides since 2003.

The Consequences of Hydroelectric Dams

While hydropower can be cost-effective, there are some legitimate concerns about its long-term sustainability.

For starters, hydroelectric dams require large upstream reservoirs to ensure a consistent supply of water. Flooding new areas of land can disrupt wildlife, degrade water quality, and even cause natural disasters like earthquakes.

Dams can also disrupt the natural flow of rivers. Other studies have found that millions of people living downstream from large dams suffer from food insecurity and flooding.

Whereas the benefits have generally been delivered to urban centers or industrial-scale agricultural developments, river-dependent populations located downstream of dams have experienced a difficult upheaval of their livelihoods.
– Richter, B.D. et al. (2010)

Perhaps the greatest risk to hydropower is climate change itself. For example, due to the rising frequency of droughts, hydroelectric dams in places like California are becoming significantly less economical.

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