The topic of rare earth dependency of India on China, especially as it plans to become an aatmanirbhar economy, is daunting because China controls 90 per cent of the global rare earth produce.
Resource nationalism and geopolitics has already started to dominate the trade deals/wars of this decade. In 2010, China cut off rare earth metal supply to Japan as tensions rose, which forced all the industrial economies to wake up. Rare earth metals are a crucial component for a lot of things — from car exhausts to smartphones to defence weaponry. When the trade war between the US and China hit an all-time low in 2019, Beijing threatened to stop the rare earth supply to the US.
In this atmosphere, India, because of short-sightedness and political gains, has given up control over a simple and powerful enabler metal — copper — which we once used to produce and export. Currently, we rely on global supply chains and, in 2019, became a net importer of copper after 18 years. Although copper is not a rare earth metal, it is one of the most widely used industrial metal finding applications in electric vehicle manufacturing, renewable energy generation, infrastructure development and domestic electrical appliance.
Through copper production, India had a little leverage over the industrial metal supply chain but we have lost that too by shutting down India’s largest copper smelting plant in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu. If we cannot process copper ore, we cannot even think of rare earth metals. And if we want to move onto renewable energy sources for a self-reliant India, we need to produce more copper.
A green push?
The policymakers, think tanks and government bodies around the globe are pushing for reducing industrial carbon footprint and providing incentives to electric vehicle manufacturers and customers. China is way ahead, being the leading manufacturer and consumer of electric vehicles in the world. More than half of the electric vehicles are now being manufactured and sold in China. Majority of their buses have already been replaced by clean air electric vehicles. With all the major infrastructure growth associated with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and renewable energy generation, the copper consumption of China has grown rapidly, making it the largest consumer of the metal in the world.
In India, Road and Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has set an ambitious goal of replacing 100 per cent of the internal combustion engines with electric vehicles by — it was later diluted to 30 per cent. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her Budget speech in 2019, said that she wanted India to be a global hub of electric vehicle manufacturing. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has set an ambitious target of 450GW of renewable energy generation by 2030.
Although the Narendra Modi government seems to be convinced about India’s energy security needs and is pushing for green energy, the policymakers seem to be less informed about the resource and infrastructure availability, needs and geopolitics.
India needs copper
Irrespective of the manufacturer and the battery technology used, one component that is common to all types of electric vehicles is copper because they are invariably driven by electric motors. Even if significantly superior battery efficiency can be developed in the future, it is the quantity of copper used in these electric motor that will eventually dictate the vehicle efficiency. Each electric vehicle uses 400 per cent more copper than a fossil fuel-run vehicle.
A 3MW wind turbine contains up to 4.7 tonnes of copper for wiring, cable, turbine/power generation and transformers. In the solar power systems, there are approximately 5.5 tonnes of copper per MW, used for heat exchangers, wiring and cabling. According to a report submitted by Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal, India has become a net importer of refined copper. However, India used to be a net exporter of refined copper even three years ago. This is a direct consequence of shutting down the country’s major copper smelting plant, Sterlite Industries in Tamil Nadu, which contributed to over 40 per cent of India’s copper production.
For India to meet its 2030 goal, enhancement of a major grid-level power infrastructure that requires enormous amounts of copper is necessary. As car sales slowly increase, the electricity networks shall reach its limit. Existing networks are designed for traditional energy needs, with unidirectional power flow. So, the electricity network will require some form of upgrading in order to accommodate the rapid increase in electricity demand and possible bi-directional flow of power. The electricity distribution cables from the primary substations and secondary substations to individual houses, which are typically made of copper, will require varying levels of reinforcement.
Furthermore, another major copper consumption is going to be in installation of charging stations and building of new secondary substations along highways and remote places to enable long-distance driving. Similar challenges shall be faced for domestic customers with chargers at home. Without copper, there cannot be any renewable energy generation. India needs to find a way to produce sufficient copper to meet energy security needs. Reducing the supply chain dependency on industrial metals is key for any long-term manufacturing plans.
Letting science speak, not politics
Building new copper smelting plants will take time and resource, and it is not easy to convince investors to venture into such high-risk, geopolitically untenable business models, which also face threats from domestic politics. Will the Modi government alleviate the genuine concerns raised by citizens and allow Sterlite to resume operations? The irony is that the plant, which was shut because it was allegedly polluting the environment, has serious potential to offer products that can solve air pollution and save tens of thousands of lives every year. An open dialogue based on science, facts and the reality of geopolitics is needed.
A country that can handle nuclear wastes can very well manage other industrial wastes. Will politicians allow science and data to speak? Will the Sterlite Industries, which has already been accused of violating the norms by several government bodies, follow a higher standard to deal with the effluents? It is the responsibility of the government to win the confidence of people and invest in new materials. Innovation cannot happen in vacuum.
Copper shortage is not only going to affect the environment and make air pollution worse, but it can also stop us from making any infrastructural developments. Our household electrical wiring, cables and bore-well motor pumps, also require copper. Without copper, there is no clean air, no green energy, possibly no water, and we have only limited copper reserves.
The author is an entrepreneur and materials scientist based in Silicon Valley, California. Views are personal.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.