What Does $5/lb Copper Mean for the Building Wire Market?

Josh Vogel
May 15, 2024

Copper crosses the $5-per-pound threshold

Copper is currently trading at two-year highs, which analysts suggest may be driven by the potential that copper supply will struggle to keep pace with rising global demand.  Depleted inventory combined with an uptick in demand from industries with high copper consumption translates into a scenario where many analysts predict the price of copper to rise far beyond $5/lb.1

Many analysts predict the price of copper to rise far beyond $5/lb.

Many experts saw May’s new price point coming as copper had already increased in value by about 20%, but an understanding of the numerous factors impacting copper supply are leading some experts to accelerate their prediction timelines for reaching the long-expected $15,000-per-metric-ton ($6.80/lb) milestone as early as 2025.1

The rising price of copper

Analysts attribute much of the copper price explosion to soaring demand, mainly due to the large role the metal plays in renewable energy, decarbonization efforts, and power grid investments. However, this latest round of copper price increases does not stem from demand alone; it is also due to concerns about copper production and standing inventory's struggle to keep pace.2

Copper supply is further threatened by the increased tightening of mining regulations and geopolitical tensions. In 2022, copper production was about 22 MMT, while demand was about 26 MMT, with recycled copper scrambling to help make up the 4 MMT difference. Despite copper producers’ efforts to increase output, there is also a shortage of new mine development. Simply put – mines are not producing as much copper as the market requires.2

Mines are not producing as much copper as the market requires.

As a result of these factors, the U.S. Department of Energy classified copper as a “Critical Material” in their 2023 report.3 This classification is reserved for a substance that the Secretary of Energy designates as “a high risk of supply chain disruption; and serves an essential function in one or more energy technologies.”4

What does this mean for the building wire market?

The greater a market’s reliance on a critical material, the greater its vulnerability to instability.

Few industries will feel the impact of record-setting copper price increases like the construction industry, which accounts for almost half (46%) of the nation’s copper supply. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), within the construction industry, building wire alone uses 20% of the total U.S. copper supply.5, 6  

But, the factor impacting the building industry’s vulnerability to copper price fluctuation is more closely tied to a single product’s dependency on copper: building wire. For decades, the primary conductor material for building wire has been composed of 100% copper. So logically, the price of copper has an outsized impact on the price of building wire.  

The price of copper has an outsized impact on the price of building wire.

Steep increases in building wire costs

Over the past few months, builders and electrical contractors who use solid-copper building wire have felt the financial and administrative fallout of record-setting building wire costs. When copper prices spike, building costs soar, requiring copper price approvals, re-estimations, construction delays, and slower cycle times. These factors devastate budgets, reduce profits, and frustrate relationships.

From March to May of 2024, copper building wire experienced several wire cost increases, each around 5%.7, 8 During these events, building wire distributors buy wire at higher levels, allowing them to ‘hold back’ price increases for a few weeks; but when distributors exhaust lower-price copper wire inventories, builders and contractors see dramatic price increases. As a result, copper wire cost fluctuations occur in cycles rather than through a linear relationship with the price of copper. Currently, the construction market is anticipating the build-up of another building wire cost increase.

During copper events like this, home builders are getting ‘hammered’ by increase after increase after increase in copper pricing. The resulting impact on building wire costs has been dramatic: a massive surge of 25%-35%, on average. And, that’s just over the past 3 months!

The relationship between copper price and wire theft

There is another, more sinister, relationship with the price of copper — the incidence of wire theft. Home builders have long observed the direct impact of high copper prices on the prevalence of building wire theft. The higher the price of copper, the greater the incentive for thieves to assume risk in hopes of a big payoff.

Copper building wire is a prime target for thieves because of its increasing value as scrap. Whether via outright theft of complete circuits by skilled thieves or pilferage via liberal end-cutting by third-party installers, many job sites experience some degree of copper theft.  It is estimated that as high as 8% of the copper wiring in new construction is lost to copper theft and insider pilferage. Annually, this would amount to enough copper building wire for 112,000 homes (15.7 million pounds of copper).

And, when copper wiring is stolen from a new construction site, there are even more costly factors to consider: production delays and lost time for the builder, repairs to circuit components and sheet rock, replacement of appliances and luminaires caused by damage, the cost of private security, and an increased risk of fire hazards — all costs that come out of the builder’s pocket.

What are the obvious solutions?

  1. Use less copper.
  2. Deter incentives for theft.

Fortunately, the building construction industry already has an alternative to single-metal copper wire in place. Copper-Clad Aluminum (CCA) is a bimetallic conductor that has been referenced by the NEC since 1971 and is listed for use by UL and ETL. CCA building wire is being rapidly adopted by builders and electrical contractors who are looking for safe and effective alternatives to copper building wire.

CCA building wire uses less copper

CCA building wire uses 1/6th the amount of copper when upsized two AWG sizes against copper conductors, as is required by the NEC for most electrical circuits. This upsizing allows CCA to provide comparable electrical performance to equivalently rated copper conductors. Credible reports also find that CCA conductors, when upsized, are on average 2.7% more efficient due to lower impedance.9

Utilizing CCA instead of single-metal copper for commodity building wire applications could have potentially saved the nation nearly 700 million pounds of copper in 2022! That’s equivalent to the copper required for 3.8 million EVs or 3.6 million homes. Using this 2022 potential saving model, CCA building wire could conserve 3.2 billion metric tons (7 billion lbs) of copper resources over the next decade, not even accounting for market growth.10, 11

CCA building wire could conserve 3.2 billion metric tons (7 billion lbs) of copper resources over the next decade.

CCA building wire reduces theft incentives

While substations have used CCS grounding conductors to reduce theft incentives for decades, builders and electrical contractors are turning to Copperweld's CCA products to help mitigate the costs associated with copper wire theft.

Copperweld’s metallurgically bonded CCA building wire has little scrap value, making it less attractive to copper thieves. If a thief carts a load of CCA wire to a local copper recycler, he will likely leave embarrassed, empty handed, and bimetal educated.

CCA reduces the impact of rising copper prices

While increasing copper prices send shock waves through the building wire market, there is a simple way to mitigate the impacts. Implementing a CCA building wire adoption strategy can help better protect profits in addition to positively impacting copper conservation efforts and reducing theft incentives.