'Ephemeralize Everything' to Reduce Demand for Electricity and Materials

A lesson from Buckminster Fuller: Before we electrify everything, we need to reduce demand.

open pit copper mine in Spain
An open pit copper mine in Spain.

drcooke / Getty Images

Along with climate doomers, we now apparently have "climate peakers." The former are those who believe it is too late to fix our problems and don't want to bother trying. The latter are those who suggest we don't have enough of the materials to fix our problems so, again, why bother trying? But there are two sides to this story: the supply side, which may well be met with clever alternatives like cheap batteries, and the demand side, which can be met with lifestyle changes and smart design. As an example, let's look at the possibility of peak copper. 

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

Bullard wrote about the importance of copper: "I think of copper as a common carrier, so to speak, of decarbonization. It is literally the wiring that connects the present to the future." The biggest consumer of copper has traditionally been the construction industry. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in 2019, construction ate up 43% of copper, electrical and electronics products took 20%, and transportation equipment claimed 20%.

Bullard wrote that by the end of this decade, transportation will be the biggest driver.

"There is a challenge facing this growth trajectory, and it’s not so much acute as it is existential. BloombergNEF expects that primary copper production can increase about 16% by 2040. That increase, needless to say, is rather short of demand. By the early 2030s, copper demand could outstrip supply by more than 6 million tons per year." 
An average day in a copper mine

Grid Arendal

Expanding the supply of copper is environmentally messy. According to environmental nonprofit GRID-Arendal, a single large copper mine will dig up 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 are going to keep expanding production to meet Bullard's projections for demand, then the problem is truly existential. 

Ephemeralize Everything

My trusty copy of Nine Chains to the Moon
My trusty copy of "Nine Chains to the Moon".

Lloyd Alter

But we keep asking the same question: Why does demand for everything always have to go up? While recently reading Alec Nevala-Lee's new biography, "Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller," I was reminded of the term "ephemeralization," which he coined in his 1938 book "Nine Chains to the Moon" to describe how through technological advancement, we can do "more and more with less and less until eventually, you can do everything with nothing."

He concluded:

Efficiency = doing more with less.

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

According to Copper.org, the average American single-family home contains 439 pounds of copper, of which 195 pounds is in electrical wiring. "There is an average of 50-55 electrical outlets per home and some 15-20 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 these are actually connected to a device that requires 14 gauge wiring carrying 15 amps? Perhaps four big appliances; everything else is running on milliamps now, and probably three-quarters of that copper wiring could be replaced with USB cables. And the Copper.org people base this all on a 2,100 square foot house; a multifamily unit uses only 278 pounds of copper before we ephemeralize it. 

Then, of course, there is transportation and the 183 pounds of copper going into electric cars. This could be the biggest driver of the demand for copper, but as we have noted many times, e-bikes can eat cars. They also significantly reduce the demand for electricity and copper. 

An English study found: "Mass uptake of e-bikes could make a significant early contribution to transport carbon reduction, particularly in areas where conventional walking and cycling do not fit journey patterns and bus provision is relatively expensive, inflexible and, certainly in the UK, has diminished 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. Throw in decent planning, 15-minute cities, and walkable communities, and you have ephemeralized transportation. 

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

When "Electrify Everything!" became a meme, I noted we also had to "Reduce Demand!," which didn't have the same alliterative ring to it. But the point 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 demand through sufficiency, simplicity, and efficiency.

And while "reduce demand!" couldn't be turned into a meme, after this brief look into the issues with peak copper, and my weekend read of Bucky, I have my new cri de coeur: Ephemeralize Everything!

View Article Sources
  1. "Copper’s Role in Growing Electric Vehicle Production." CME Group, Reuters.

  2. "Mineral Commodity Summaries 2020." United States Geological Survey.

  3. "An Average Day in a Large-Sized Copper Mine." GRID-Arendal.

  4. "Copper Facts: Copper in the Home." Copper.org.

  5. Philips, Ian, et al. "E-Bikes and Their Capability To Reduce Car CO2 Emissions.Transport Policy, vol. 116, 2022, pp. 11-23., doi:10.1016/j.tranpol.2021.11.019

  6. "Renewables." Copper Development Association.