Renewable Energies Will Devour Metal Resources in Latin America

(IPS) – The expansion of renewable energies in Latin America will drive up demand for metals like copper, which only recycling will be able to meet.

Alternative technologies, such as photovoltaic cells, wind turbines and solar water heaters, require materials like silicon, gallium, indium, steel and copper.

“It is possible that it will fuel demand,” Odón de Buen, head of Energy, Technology and Education (ENTE), a local non-governmental organisation, told IPS. “There is fierce debate about materials at the moment, with the appearance of different strategic elements.

“Now that fossil fuels are starting to run out and alternative investments are being made in renewable technologies, metals are becoming more important than oil, gas or coal,” he said.

ENTE supports small and medium sized businesses, as well as municipal governments, in adopting best practices for energy efficiency.

De Buen is a co-author, with other Mexican and Brazilian experts, of the report “Energías renovables para generación de electricidad en América Latina: mercado, tecnologías y perspectivas” (Renewable Energy for Electricity Generation in Latin America: market, technologies and outlook), sponsored by the New York-based International Copper Association (ICA).

The study, which focuses on Central America, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela, forecasts rapid growth in renewable energies by 2020, by which time additional demand for copper in these countries is estimated to climb to between 57,000 and 112,000 tonnes.

“Wind energy and small hydropower plants represent 73 percent of total demand for copper. When electricity generation using biomass is included in the projection, the three technologies together make up between 86 and 93 percent of estimated demand for copper in 2020,” the document says.

Brazil will need between 39,940 and 44,440 additional tonnes of copper in 2019, while Argentina will need between 4,070 and 29,610 tonnes by 2020, and Mexico will require 5,860 additional tonnes by 2020.

“Recycling and soaring prices may alleviate the pressure of demand. Supplying more copper to the market brings prices down. If there is a deficit, prices rise and prompt the replacement of one metal by another,” said Alejandro Jaramillo, a member of the Bureau of International Recycling, a Brussels-based recycling industry federation which has over 800 companies and 70 national federations as members.

Alternative energy sources, excluding large hydropower stations, contribute between 2.5 and five percent of the total electricity generating capacity in the countries studied.

The report says biomass is the main alternative source of electrical power, as it accounts for 50 percent of renewable installed capacity in Latin America, followed by small hydropower plants (37 percent) and wind energy (13 percent).

Electricity generation based on biomass – especially sugar cane – is particularly big in Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, while most of the installed wind energy capacity is located in Brazil, Mexico and Argentina.

In Mexico, 93 percent of energy is derived from fossil fuels, and the rest is generated by wind, solar, steam, water and nuclear power. The country has installed capacities of 850 megawatts of wind energy, 20 megawatts of solar energy and 958 megawatts of geothermal energy.

Mexico is also rich in metallic minerals such as silver, zinc, copper and lead. Copper mining yields 227,000 tonnes a year, but the country also imports copper, aluminium, iron, tin and nickel from countries like Canada, the United States, Chile and Brazil.

Recycling could supply the renewable energy sector with the metals it needs, as well as curbing mining activity, according to experts. The report “Recycling Rates of Metals”, published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), warns that some metals crucial to clean technologies may become scarce because of low recycling rates.

While metals such as iron and steel, copper, aluminium, lead and tin enjoy recycling rates of between 25 and 75 percent globally, less than one percent of 34 other metals is recycled, according to the UNEP report.

“Recycling can counteract the growth in demand,” De Buen said. “Years ago, only specific things were recycled in an isolated manner, but now recycling is a significant economic activity. Here in Mexico, very little is recycled; instead, used copper is stolen and sold illegally. This must change so that it is reused, because the global trend is towards ‘closed-loop’ processing cycles for materials.”

In Mexico, metals such as steel, aluminium, copper, bronze, zinc and lead are recycled, with aluminium being reused the most, reflecting high consumption of canned beverages and foods.

“It is a very recent industry that is maturing gradually,” said Jaramillo, whose company located in the city of Tijuana, on the border with the United States, reprocesses 1,500 tonnes a month of copper, aluminium, bronze and stainless steel. “Unfortunately, a lot of metal goes straight to the garbage dumps and is not recovered.”

The country generates some 37 million tonnes of garbage a year, three percent of which is metals, according to the Environment Secretariat, which has published a Directory of Waste Collection Centres listing over 150 scrap metal recycling firms.

The ICA estimates that solar electricity production using photovoltaic panels requires 8.8 kg of copper per kilowatt, while geothermal electricity requires four kg, wind energy generation 2.5, hydraulic energy two, and biomass derived electricity 1.2 kg.

According to the ICA report, over the next decade wind energy and biomass will be the leading technologies in the countries studied. It predicts significant expansion of wind power in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, and of biomass in Brazil, Argentina, Central America, Colombia and Peru.

By 2020, Brazil could add over 8,500 megawatts to its installed biomass capacity, while Argentina could have additional installed wind energy capacity of between 200 and 8,000 megawatts, and Mexico 1,724 megawatts of extra wind energy capacity, the report says.