Copper & Brass
Friday | 09 December, 2016 | 1:12 pm

Electric avenues

Written by By Corinna Petry

Above: It’s not the turbine or the vehicle or the battery itself that is of such interest to the copper industry—“it’s all the connection wiring and cabling and bus bar.”

Although mandates remain in flux, market leaders follow clean energy opportunities wherever they spark

December 2016 - Reducing carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is a laudable goal, and an achievable one should all stakeholders (which is everyone) come to a consensus. But there have been setbacks at each step toward the clean energy future of our collective dreams. The good news is that one industry has driven around roadblocks to deliver solutions and design products for the next wave of energy strategies, while remaining competitive.

Zolaikha Strong, director of sustainable electrical energy for the Copper Development Association (CDA), New York, was recently appointed to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Advisory Committee.

Because the CDA supports carbon reduction, it studies clean energy applications on behalf of members, namely producers, distributors and consumers of copper. “We look at clean energy as a tiered system. Renewable solar photovoltaic panel installations and wind turbines are two of the biggest applications and represent large copper use,” says Strong.

Then there is electrical transmission. “Our biggest copper usage area is transformers and motors. In those two realms, we are looking to help the Department of Energy select the most efficient materials. We have been in that discussion—motors and transformers—for a long time. For the future,” she notes, CDA is studying applications in electric vehicles. It’s not a new market but there is renewed interest in the wire harness, which supports all electrical functions; the EV battery; and external support functions such as charging stations.

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Renewable solar photovoltaic panel installations and wind turbines are the two of the biggest applications for copper.

It’s important for copper to be “part of the process,” says Strong.

Motors use 260 million tons of copper a year, primarily in the form of wiring. Renewables, which have copper wiring, tubing and cable, offer a potential for copper usage up to five times greater than traditional electrical generation. About 5.5 tons of copper is used in each megawatt of renewable energy capacity, and between 5,400 and 15,400 pounds of copper are used in each megawatt of solar power generation, CDA reports. These figures don’t include hydropower and biomass.

“On the energy storage side, higher copper intensity has been realized, from 0.3 to 4 tons per megawatt,” Strong says. Storage batteries have diverse material specifications, depending on their size and what they support, whether used at the utility source or to power a subdivision of homes. Industry observers estimate the global opportunity for energy storage over the next 10 to 20 years might be valued at between $200 billion and $600 billion.

The opportunities are diverse in all parts of the electrical power production, distribution and receiving chain. 

“It’s not the turbine or the vehicle or the battery itself” that is of such interest to the copper industry; “it’s all the connection wiring and cabling and bus bar. Mechanical and electrical parts need to connect. We advocate for the use of copper for its high conductivity, its high reliability and performance year after year,” Strong says.

States’ actions

Seven years ago, efforts were made to execute a federal mandate that all utilities across the United States achieve 25 percent of their power generation using renewable energy sources. Even though federal mandates have not been given, states have actively pursued renewable standards and some 30 states now have plans that supersede the 25 percent goal, Strong says. “As states adopt their own renewable standards, they are already transitioning and incorporating them into their mix.” 

Interstate transmission of electricity is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and states oversee generation and distribution of the electrical markets. 

“What we want at the end of the day is to see an increased use in solar and wind for the generation of electricity. As states take the lead in portfolio standards, more efficiency is required and more renewables are integrated, including solar, wind, hydro and biomass. That’s all positive,” Strong comments. The federal government “doesn’t need to hold states’ hands. It’s become organic and evolving.”

CDA, she says, supported production tax credits for solar and wind power, “because it still helps to have tax benefits to gain penetration in the market. Wind energy [as measured in megawatts] has quadrupled since 2008 and grew 3 percent since the end of 2015 globally. The storage market is at 6 gigawatts and will grow to about 40 gigawatts of planned production by 2022,” Strong says.

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Wind energy output, as measured in megawatts, has quadrupled since 2008 and grew 3 percent since the end of 2015 globally.

The energy market, she notes, is very complex. “There is an unfair expectation that things transition right away. We are already dealing with aging infrastructure. Anything in these large expensive industries takes time.”

However, if and when the United States sets the bar high, the transition will accelerate and spread throughout the globe, she predicts.

Relationship building

The CDA has long worked with many government agencies, commissions and offices to spread the word on how copper makes a positive contribution to clean and efficient energy. For example, it works with the Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office related to the grid, motors and transformers, and the Energy Efficiency and Renewables Office. CDA has working relationships with the Edison Electric Institute, the Solar Energy Institute, the Wind Energy Association, the Energy Storage Association and others.

“These are all types of relationships that determine the direction we’re going,” Strong says. She has worked with the Department of Defense to promote copper in motors. In addition, many CDA members have invested in the research and development of the copper rotor motor, which “supersedes efficiency requirements for other motors,“ she says.

“Rio Tinto will take part in research with the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute so the U.S. fully leverages domestic mineral and metal resources required for global leadership in clean power manufacturing,” according to Strong. Many CDA members also work with the National Electrical Manufacturers Association and also take on work through their own customer base and downstream associations. “We let them know what’s going on with each agency and with the states. We give them information and gather information. We leverage what they’re already doing,” Strong explains. “Being at the table with the manufacturers starts an important dialogue.” MM


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