Australia’s green future may be tarnished by copper

Lithium may be the hero mineral of the renewable energy drive. But it’s going nowhere without copper. And we’re struggling to find enough.

The Ruddygore Copper Project near Chillagoe, some 150 kilometres west of Cairns, in north Queensland, this month reported promising results from drilling surveys around the century-old, disused mine site.

It’s part of a nationwide quest to identify viable copper deposits to meet an anticipated increase in demand. But a new study by analysts S&P Global warns the effort to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 risks being “short-circuited” by a looming lack of the crucial conductor.

Copper remains at the heart of most electrical technologies. And electrically powered equipment – from stoves and heaters through to cars, trucks and trains – all rely on copper components. Not to mention the generators and power grid supplying them.

“Copper is the metal of electrification and absolutely essential to the energy transition,” says S&P Global vice chairperson Daniel Yergin.

The study, “The Future of Copper: Will the looming supply gap short-circuit the energy transition”, anticipates demand to leap from 25 million tonnes in 2021 to about 53 million tonnes by 2050.

Copper prices have fallen some 25% in the past month due to global recession fears. But S&P Global doesn’t expect this to last. Nor do mineral explorers.

Queensland’s Chillagoe district has a long history of mining. Silver, lead and gold have all been extracted there since the 1880s. But copper has always been the staple product. The Ruddygore Mine was first established in 1896. Some 1400 tons of copper were extracted in the following years. But, after closing in 1909, the site was left mainly unsurveyed.

A geophysics survey last year defined a 1km long by 300 metre wide chargeability anomaly – where electrical currents reveal the presence of minerals. Further testing this year by Ballymore Resources indicates “strong potential” for a shallow copper deposit remaining in the old site’s vicinity.

“This drilling program and assays received to date have identified broad zones of copper mineralisation,” says Ballymore technical director David A-Izzeddin. “These are exceptional results for the first holes and will guide our next steps for the project.”

But it’s just a drop in the ocean of anticipated demand, according to S&P Global.

“The world has never produced so much copper in such a short timeframe as would be required,” Yergin says. “On current trends, the doubling of global copper demand by 2035 would result in significant shortfalls.”

Specifically, the report warns new mines aren’t coming on-line fast enough to keep up with the surge in demand. It takes about 16 years to activate a new mine from scratch, so any new project started today will only likely begin to produce by 2040. The report warns a 10 million tonne shortfall will be choking the electrification of the global economy by 2035.

“All this has to be in place by 2035 to meet the 2050 objectives,” says Yergin. “(So) we turn to the question of where’s the supply going to come from? From mines? From greater efficiency? From recycling? I’d say this study is a wake-up call.”

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