When this spring’s Seoul Motor Show rolled into town, there was a distinctly electric feel to the affair. The biennial exhibition’s central aisle was dominated by electric vehicles (EVs): two-seaters, family sedans, sports cars, motorbikes, and scooters. A cursory glance would have led onlookers to presume battery-powered wheels were taking over. While that has not happened yet, the outlook is rosy – a copper-rose tint, even – because EV growth is great news for one of its most essential components, copper.
The tipping point
The interest in EVs at Seoul Motor Show was no anomaly. After sales grew 72 percent to a million units in 2017, more than 2 million units were sold in 2018. And the consensus among industry analysts is for exponential growth from here. Deloitte expects the world to see an additional 21 million EVs on the road by 2030 – a 950 percent increase compared with last year.
That jump is partly explained by technological improvements and government measures such as offering incentives to buy EVs and making gasoline and diesel vehicles less appealing. For example, London drew international attention this month for implementing an ultra-low emission zone, making access more expensive for drivers of vehicles that do not meet the city’s new strict guidelines.
Speaking of expense, the cost of EVs is another major consideration. Simply put, it will be cheaper to buy one sooner than expected, according to multiple analyses. Based on a recent report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, EVs will start becoming less expensive than their combustion-engine counterparts in just three years. Deloitte’s forecast is that this will “eliminate one of the greatest barriers to purchase, boosting demand and increasing market growth.”
A new Copper Age
The expected surge in EV interest is naturally fueling a bullish attitude about copper’s long-term prospects. Battery-powered EVs and plug-in hybrid vehicles require 3.6 times more copper on average than those driven by a combustion engine.
To elaborate, a gasoline or diesel vehicle needs up to 23 kilograms of copper, while a full electric SUV requires more than 100 kilograms, and a single electric bus relies on nearly 370 kilograms. Such buses are not some distant possibility either. Last year, China was reportedly adding around 9,500 electric buses – the equivalent of all of London’s buses – every five weeks.
Combustion-engine vehicles mostly need copper for wiring, and account for around 7 percent of the commodity’s total demand. But the picture is changing as the market share of EVs is expected to shoot up from just over 2 percent last year to 55 percent of all new car sales by 2040.
Also driven by growth markets like renewables, demand for copper is set to scratch 30 million tons in less than a decade, rising by around 2.6 percent a year. It is worth noting as an aside that various minerals will be riding the EV tide. In addition to its copper business, Samsung C&T trades key commodities used to produce EV batteries, such as nickel.
Will the price be right?
The supply side clearly weighs heavily on what happens to copper prices in the coming years. For what it is worth, Morgan Stanley chose copper as its top pick among It is worth noting that metals in a quarterly report late last month, anticipating a market deficit of 406,000 tons this year and 187,000 tons in 2020 – expecting the price of copper to push higher than its recent peak of USD6,604 per ton, which was a level largely attributed to China’s brightening economic outlook.
Capital Economics’ optimism recently went even further, as it claimed “constrained supply” will lift copper to nearly USD10,000 per ton by 2025 – close to three times higher than general expectations.
Whether copper meets the hype or not, mining projects are bound to catch up with demand eventually, capping any potential for long-term oversupply. It remains to be seen then just how rosy the future will be for the so-called red metal.