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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

The Road to EV Adoption: Fast Lanes and Potholes

Electric vehicles are a key piece of the clean energy puzzle. So what’s driving EV adoption, and what’s slowing it down?

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EV adoption

The Road to EV Adoption: Fast Lanes and Potholes

Electric vehicles (EVs) are a key piece of the clean energy puzzle.

However, the road to electrification is influenced by various factors. While some are helping speed up the switch to EVs, others are slowing it down.

The above infographic from Rock Tech Lithium outlines the fast lanes accelerating mainstream EV adoption, and the potholes slowing it down.

The Fast Lanes Accelerating EV Adoption

From government policies to falling battery prices, a number of factors are putting EVs in the fast lane to consumer adoption.

Factor #1:

Promoting Policies

The shift to a clean energy future is slowly moving from a goal to a reality.

Governments around the world have made automobile electrification a key part of public policy. More than 20 countries are targeting a complete phase-out of vehicles that emit greenhouse gases over the next two decades. Furthermore, 35 countries have pledged for net-zero economies by 2050, where EVs will play a key role.

As an example, here’s a recent tweet that U.S. President Joe Biden wrote before signing an executive order to make 50% of the U.S. auto fleet electric by 2030:

“The future of the auto industry is electric—and made in America.”

—President Biden on Twitter

Given the increasing importance of EVs, it’s no surprise that governments are not only promoting auto electrification but also incentivizing it.

Factor #2:

Consumer Awareness

The rapid growth of the EV market is partly due to consumers that are choosing to go electric.

Rising awareness around the risks of climate change as well as vehicle improvements from EV manufacturers is spurring EV adoption among consumers. Between 2015 and 2020, consumer spending on EVs increased by 561%, up from $18 billion to $119 billion.

As more consumers switch to EVs, the market will continue to grow.

Factor #3:

More Models

EV manufacturers are recognizing the need for a wider variety of vehicles to meet the needs of different consumers.

The number of available EV models has increased from 86 in 2015 to over 360 in 2020, and thanks to recent announcements from the auto industry, this trend is likely to extend over the next decade.

Company# of New EV Models AnnouncedYear
Volkswagen752025
Ford402022
GM302025
Hyundai-Kia1292025
BMW252023
Renault-Nissan2202022
Toyota152025
Total234N/A

1Hyundai is the parent company of Kia Motors.
2Refers to the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance.
Source: IEA

With more models available, consumers have a wider variety of cars to choose from, reducing the barriers to EV adoption.

Factor #4:

Falling Battery Prices

Batteries are the most expensive and important components of EVs.

Improvements in battery technology, in addition to expanding production, have driven down the cost of EV batteries. As battery costs fall, so do EV prices, bringing EVs closer to price-parity with gas-powered cars.

YearBattery Pack Price ($/kWh)% Price Drop Since 2010
2010$1,1910%
2011$92422%
2012$72639%
2013$66844%
2014$59250%
2015$38468%
2016$29575%
2017$22181%
2018$18185%
2019$15787%
2020$13789%

Source: BloombergNEF

According to BloombergNEF, at the battery pack price point of $100/kWh, EV prices will become competitive with gas-powered cars, providing a boost to electrification.

All of the above factors are playing a major role in accelerating the EV transition. So what’s slowing it down?

The Potholes Slowing Down EV Adoption

Although the EV market is growing exponentially, it’s still in its early days, with various obstacles to overcome on the way to mainstream penetration.

Pothole #1:

The Supply of Battery Metals

EV batteries rely on the properties of various battery metals to power EVs. In fact, a single EV contains around 207 kg of metals.

As EV adoption grows, the demand for these critical minerals is expected to reach unprecedented highs. In turn, this could result in supply shortages for metals like lithium, cobalt, and graphite, potentially slowing down the growth of the EV market.

To avoid potential shortages, EV manufacturers like Tesla and Volkswagen are vertically integrating to mine their own metals, while governments work to build domestic and independent metal supply chains.

Pothole #2:

Charging Infrastructure

With more EVs on the roads, drivers need more places to plug in and recharge.

However, most countries are lagging behind in the installation of public chargers. The global average ratio of public chargers to EV stock is less than 0.15. This means that on average, there are less than 3 chargers for every 20 EVs.

But there are signs of optimism. Global charging infrastructure has doubled since 2017, and governments are incentivizing charger installations with subsidies and tax rebates.

Pothole #3:

Charging Times

While filling up gas tanks takes less than five minutes, it can take up to eight hours to fully charge an EV battery.

Fast chargers that use direct current can fully charge EVs in a couple of hours, but they’re more expensive to install. However, the majority of publicly available chargers are slow, making it inconvenient for drivers to charge on the go.

As charging technology improves, faster chargers are being developed to boost charge times. According to Bloomberg, new ultra-fast chargers can fully charge EVs in less than 30 minutes. Furthermore, the market share of fast chargers is expected to grow from 15% today to 27% by 2030.

Pothole #4:

Range Anxiety

Compared to gas-powered vehicles, EVs do not go the distance yet.

Limited driving ranges are known to cause “range anxiety”—the fear of running out of power—among EV drivers, presenting a hurdle for mainstream EV adoption. Additionally, the lack of charging infrastructure reinforces the problem of limited ranges.

However, consistent improvements in battery technology are resulting in longer driving ranges. Between 2015 and 2020, the average range for battery EVs increased by 60%. With further technological improvements, extended ranges will allow EVs be compete more aggressively with their gas-guzzling counterparts.

The Decade of the Electric Vehicle

The EV market is growing at a remarkable rate. EV makers sold around three million vehicles in 2020, up 155% from just over one million vehicles sold in 2017.

With several factors driving EV adoption and stakeholders working to overcome the industry’s obstacles, mainstream adoption of EVs is on the horizon.

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Electrification

How Much Land is Needed to Power the U.S. with Solar?

Solar power is essential for the clean energy transition, but how much land is needed to power the U.S. using solar panels?

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How Much Land is Needed to Power the U.S. with Solar?

The Biden administration has set a goal of reaching 100% clean electricity throughout the U.S. by 2035, and solar power is a key for this American energy transition.

In the last decade alone, solar has experienced an average annual growth rate of 42% in the U.S. thanks to federal tax credits, declining costs, and increasing demand. It is projected that more than one in seven American homes will have a solar power system by 2030.

To put this trend into perspective, this graphic uses data from the United States Department of Energy to see how much land would be needed to power the entire country with solar panels.

Solar Panels Across the Ocean State

The U.S. has 102.9 gigawatts of total solar installed capacity which is equivalent to 965 square miles, roughly the size of the country’s smallest state, Rhode Island. This current solar capacity generates enough electricity to power 18.6 million American homes, which is nearly 13% of the nation’s households.

According to a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, roughly 22,000 square miles of solar panel-filled land (about the size of Lake Michigan) would be required to power the entire country, including all 141 million households and businesses, based on 13-14% efficiency for solar modules.

Many solar panels, however, reach 20% efficiency, which could reduce the necessary area to just about 10,000 square miles, equivalent to the size of Lake Erie.

Solar Installations Spreading Across the States

Today, solar represents only 3% of the total U.S. electrical generation.

While California has traditionally dominated the market, other states like Florida and Texas are expanding rapidly, boosted by the residential market.

Large companies with clean energy goals such as Walmart, Apple, Target and Amazon have also helped push solar adoption to near-record levels in 2021.

How much land is needed to power the U.S. with solar?

Despite having a high installation cost, the technology tends to bring savings in the long term. An average-sized residential system has dropped from a price of $40,000 in 2010 to roughly $20,000 in 2020. Along with this, solar panels can save between $10,000-$30,000 over a 30-year lifetime.

Between land and rooftops, the United States has more than enough space to build all the solar panels necessary to power the country. Until then, the future of clean electricity will also depend on hydro, nuclear, geothermal, and wind energy.

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