Wind gambles on copper price and availability

New wind power installations between 2018 and 2028 will use more than 5.5 million tonnes (Mt) of copper -- more than double the amount used in the last ten years -- despite declining supplies and rising prices.

The wind power industry annual copper use is forecast to reach about 600,000 tonnes of copper by 2028 (pic credit: Codelco)
The wind power industry annual copper use is forecast to reach about 600,000 tonnes of copper by 2028 (pic credit: Codelco)

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Wood Mackenzie forecasts the wind industry will be the most copper-intensive form of power generation over the next decade as it looks to install 650GW of new wind capacity onshore and 130GW offshore by 2028.

Wind’s copper usage is expected to increase during this period, from a yearly average of 450,000 tonnes (450kt) up until the end of 2021 to 600kt per year in 2022 to 2028, the analysts predict.

China, Europe and the US wind markets will use the most copper over this period — 110kt, 80kt and 35kt per year, respectively.

Supply and demand

While Wood Mackenzie forecast copper usage to increase, it also predicted a shortage in the mid-2020s due to a number of mines retiring. 

"Investment needs to be made now in new projects so that projects can be sufficiently progressed and can close the implied supply gap," said Wood Mackenzie research analyst Henry Salisbury.

Meanwhile, with the wind power industry’s demand for the metal increasing and availability declining, the analysts forecast rising prices over the next ten years.

However, given market uncertainty "higher than anticipated volatility in the copper price is likely," Salisbury added.

Copper, favoured for its high conductivity and durability, is used in turbines’ generators, power transformers, gearboxes and tower cabling.

It is also used in collector and distribution cabling connecting turbines to substations and to the grid.

During the forecast period, cabling will account for about 58% — more than 3Mt — of the wind power industry’s copper consumption, Salisbury said.

"Future introduction of higher output turbines may reduce the number of turbines per wind farm. Considering that cabling constitutes 58% of copper intensity, this scenario could reduce copper intensity and, therefore, consumption in the future," he added.

However, progressively larger wind turbines will "increase copper intensities", Salisbury noted, especially offshore.

Alternative materials

Higher copper prices have prompted some manufacturers to consider alternate materials for some components, Wood Mackenzie said.

In cables, aluminium is lighter and cheaper, but is more susceptible to corrosion and requires more maintenance. It also has a 50% larger cross-sectional area than in copper cables in order to achieve similar levels of electrical resistivity and conductivity.

Meanwhile, in generators, most manufacturers are reluctant to commit to alternative materials until quality and reliability is guaranteed, the analysts noted.

However, Enercon has begun using aluminium coils instead of multi-strand copper wires in generators of its EP3 platform, Wood Mackenzie added.

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