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Scientist Says Hybrid Vehicle Fleets More Likely Than EVs

Manufacturing fleets of hybrid cars instead of pure electric vehicles is the answer to reducing greenhouse gas amid a global copper crunch, a University of Michigan scientist found in a report this month.

A section of roadway painted to indicate EV charging capabilities.
(TNS) — Manufacturing fleets of hybrid gas-electric cars instead of pure electric vehicles is the answer to reducing greenhouse gas emissions amid a global copper crunch, a University of Michigan earth scientist found in a report published this month.

Copper is used to make basically all "tech items," said Adam Simon, a UM professor of earth and environmental sciences. That includes appliances like refrigerators and microwaves and medical tools like MRI and X-ray machines.

It's also the backbone to the state and federal government's plan to decarbonize the economy, namely by powering the electricity grid with renewable and nuclear energy and then use that cleaner electricity to fuel electric vehicles.

There just isn't enough copper to achieve those plans while reserving enough of the mineral to build out electric grids in developing parts of the world, Simon said.

"The current policy in the United States that envisions carbon neutrality by completely electrifying everything that we use is not possible," he said. "I think, overall, the policy, it's moving us in the right direction to wean society off of fossil fuels, but electrification, it's just not possible."

That doesn't mean decarbonization dreams have to be dashed.

Instead of going all-in on EV manufacturing, Simon recommended policymakers embrace hybrid vehicles, which still have significant carbon reduction payoffs and don't require as much copper or other minerals.

He also recommended embracing new energy production technologies such as hydrogen fuel and the small-scale nuclear plants that are still under development.

"We need to adopt an 'all of the above' approach," he said.

Simon authored the report, "Copper Mining and Vehicle Electrification," for the International Energy Forum with Cornell University's Lawrence Cathles.

The pair reviewed 120 years of global copper mining production data and used it to project future copper supplies through 2050. They then compared those supplies with the demand for copper under a few scenarios: if the world's automakers fully transition to manufacturing EVs, if automakers transition instead to hybrid vehicles, and if the world uses EVs and hits net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Under a "business as usual" scenario, without an EV transition or net-zero mandates, the world would have to mine 115% more copper between 2018-50 than has been mined in human history. Transitioning to EVs would require 55% more new mines than would otherwise be needed, or approximately six new large mines coming into production annually for several decades.

In contrast, transitioning to hybrid vehicles requires a "negligible" amount of additional copper beyond the "business as usual" scenario, they found. Simon and Cathels recommended policymakers change their goals to 100% hybrid manufacturing by 2035 instead of EVs.

Internal combustion engines require 24 kilograms of copper, hybrid electric vehicles — the kind that don't plug in — require 29 kilograms, and battery electric vehicles require 60 kilograms, according to the report.

"That's a point that we think policymakers should really pay attention to, and we think the automobile manufacturing industry would probably find really interesting," Simon said. "Transitioning to an entire fleet of, not just the Toyota Prius, but an entire fleet of hybrids would potentially have as big a positive impact on the environment and require a lot less copper and other metals."

Copper is not the only mineral that poses a problem for the EV industry, said Snehamoy Chatterjee, associate professor of geologic and mining engineering and sciences at Michigan Technological University. There's also lithium, cobalt and nickel — all in short supply.

No matter the mineral, "at the end of the day you will hear the same tone," Chatterjee said. "'You cannot do that.'"

Finding copper deposits in the Earth is a major challenge, he said.

Adam Estelle, president and CEO of the Copper Development Association based in Virginia, said Simon and Cathles' copper report raised valid concerns related to America's ability to source copper to meet clean energy goals in a meaningful time frame.

Estelle, who represents the copper industry, said hastening mining projects and metals recycling is the answer. He said the United States has roughly 275 million metric tons of copper reserves and resources, with more than half of those reserves in mines that aren't in production.

"To meet this historic challenge, all available domestic copper supply sources must be expanded and fully utilized," Estelle said in a statement. "This includes increased domestic mining, increased recycling and trade."

New copper mines that started operation between 2019 and 2022 took an average of 23 years from discovery to operation, Simon and Cathels found in their report. Under those circumstances, "it is highly unlikely that there will be sufficient additional new mines to achieve 100% EV by 2035," they wrote.

Simon said even a full-scale copper mining bonanza wouldn't meet the copper demand needed to meet the EV transition by 2035, plus switch entirely to renewable power and expand electricity access around the world.

"One of the concerns is that as demand for copper goes up that is almost certain to drive prices up, and as prices go up, copper will be used for the technologies where people can afford them," Simon said. "You sort of have this tension between, do you use copper to develop the Congo or do you use copper to build Teslas? That's sort of, on some level, I think a moral question."

Mining projects are often a source of controversy, including in Michigan's Upper Peninsula where exploration and development projects are newly underway and sometimes receiving financial help from the state government. Exploration projects can require building roads and drilling in or near forests and other natural areas and in territories where tribes retain hunting, fishing and gathering rights.

Other parts of the country have mineral deposits in more remote places without the same concerns, Chatterjee said. He said opening mines in the U.P. is doable, but requires environmental review and community involvement.

"Here we have forest, we have big lakes, we have a native communities," he said. "So there are a lot of things, and we cannot do mining without respecting those concerns."

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