“Ephemeralize everything” to reduce the demand for electricity and materials

With climate veterans, we now apparently have “climate peaks”. The former are those who believe it’s too late to solve our problems and don’t want to bother trying. These are the ones that suggest we don’t have enough hardware to solve our problems, so, again, why bother trying? But there are two sides to this story: the supply side, which may well be met by smart alternatives like cheap batteries, and the demand side, which can be met by lifestyle changes and smart design. As an example, let’s look at the possibility of a copper spike.

According to Nathaniel Bullard of energy consultancy BloombergNEF, growing demand for copper will complicate clean energy boom. Indeed, as we electrify everything, we need more copper for the motors of cars and the generators of wind turbines. According to the CME Group, an average car powered by an internal combustion engine (ICE) has 51 pounds of copper in its wiring and motors, while the average electric car has 183 pounds.

Bullard wrote of the importance of copper, “I think of copper as a common carrier, so to speak, of decarbonization. It’s literally the wiring that connects the present to the future.” The biggest consumer of copper has traditionally been the construction industry. According to the US Geological Survey, in 2019, construction consumed 43% of copper, electrical and electronic products took 20%, and transportation equipment 20%.

Bullard wrote that at the end of this decade, transportation will be the main driver.

“There is a challenge to this growth trajectory, and it is not so much acute as existential. BloombergNEF expects primary copper production to grow by around 16% by 2040. This increase, needless to say, is rather less than demand. By the early 2030s, copper demand could exceed supply by more than 6 million tonnes per year.”

Arenal Grid

The expansion of the copper supply is polluting the environment. According to the non-profit environmental association GRID-Arendal, a single large copper mine will unearth 270,000 metric tons of rock and use 114,000 cubic meters of water to generate just 1,750 metric tons of copper. If copper miners continue to ramp up production to meet Bullard’s demand forecast, then the problem is truly existential.

Ephemerize everything

My faithful copy of “Nine Chains to the Moon”.

Lloyd Alter

But we keep asking ourselves the same question: why does the demand for everything always have to increase? Reading Alec Nevala-Lee’s new biography recently, “Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller‘, it reminded me of the term ‘ephemeralization’, which he coined in his 1938 book ‘Nine Chains to the Moon’ to describe how through technological progress we can do ‘more and more with less and less until finally you can do everything with nothing.”

He concluded :

Efficiency = doing more with less.

Anything can be fleeting, and many things have been. According Greenspec, a computer contains about 3.3 pounds of copper, but how old is that figure? My entire MacBook Air weighs 2.7 pounds. Meanwhile, an iPhone, the computer for most people these days, weighs 7 ounces, almost to the point where you can do it all with nothing.

According to Copper.org, the average American single-family home contains 439 pounds of copper, including 195 pounds in the electrical wiring. “There are on average 50 to 55 electrical outlets per house and about 15 to 20 light switches. That translates to between 2½ and 3 pounds of copper alloy for these uses per house.”

Yet, in the age of LEDs and electronics, how many of them are actually connected to a device that requires 14-gauge wiring carrying 15 amps? Maybe four major appliances; everything else now runs in milliamps, and probably three-quarters of that copper wiring could be replaced with USB cables. And the folks at Copper.org are basing all of this on a 2,100 square foot house; a multi-family unit uses only 278 pounds of copper before we ephemerize it.

Then, of course, there’s transportation and the 183 pounds of copper that goes into electric cars. This might be the main driver of copper demand, but as we’ve noted many times, e-bikes can eat cars. They also significantly reduce the demand for electricity and copper.

An English study found: “Mass adoption of e-bikes could make a significant early contribution to reducing carbon emissions in transport, particularly in areas where conventional walking and cycling do not fit travel patterns. and where bus provision is relatively expensive, inflexible and, certainly in the UK, has declined over recent decades.” Of course, e-bikes don’t work for everyone, but they could for many people most of the time, especially if there was an investment in safe places to ride and secure places to park. Add decent planning, 15-minute towns, and walkable communities, and you have ephemeral transportation.

Finally, we have the demand for copper in the renewable energy infrastructure needed to supply the juice needed for an all-electric world. According to the Copper Development Association, solar photovoltaic systems consume 5.5 tons of copper per megawatt. Onshore wind takes 7,766 pounds per megawatt, and offshore wind an astonishing 21,067 pounds per megawatt, mostly due to cabling.

When “Electrify everything!” became a meme, I noted that we also had to “Reduce demand!”, which didn’t have the same alliterative sound. But the fact remains that instead of trying to find enough copper to generate enough electricity to run all the motors and compressors in our cars and heat pumps, maybe we should first try to reduce the demand by sufficiency, simplicity and efficiency.

And while “reduce demand!” couldn’t be turned into a meme, after this brief rundown of the issues with the copper peak, and my weekend reading of Bucky, I have my new heart-cry: all fleeting!

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