Can the world produce enough raw materials to feed the solar panel boom?

solar panel factory

Can the word produce solar panel materials fast enough to keep up with demand?

It’s now almost a given that solar energy is the answer for the world’s energy problems. As experts have noted, it is entirely conceivable (perhaps inevitable) that solar will be the world’s first choice for energy by mid-century. With regular improvements in PV technology driving cost and efficiency breakthroughs, the predictions of the amount of total energy solar will make up is constantly being revised upwards.

Even those countries with a somewhat less than supportive legislative framework for renewables (any guesses?) are seeing solar growth cycles. As discussed last week, in these cases its a matter of the politicians lagging well behind the people on this vital issue of our times.

All good, but if we, like an increasing number of experts, accept that solar will make up the major part of our energy consumption by 2050, will we be able to increase our raw material capacity to cover the increased popularity of solar panels?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology asks this very question in a recent press release which discussed findings presented in the paper “Proceedings of the 40th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference”. This study, which was co-authored by MIT graduate student Goksin Kavlak, postdoctoral associate James McNerney, Professor Robert Jaffe of physics, and Professor Jessika Trancik of engineering systems, approached the metals needed to satisfy such demand for improvements in PV technology from a historical context.

The study has found the answer depends on the panel technology.

While the increase in the production of metals needed for traditional silicon-based PV using monocrystalline and polycrystalline silicon solar cells appears “promising” according to the study, the resources needed for the newer thin film PV technologies may be more stretched.

“Silicon-based PVs look promising from a material point of view,” said said Prof. Jaffe, the Morningstar Professor of Physics at MIT. “ The growth-rate of silicon production required to meet high deployment goals does not exceed historical norms.”

However more recent thin film technologies which replace much of the silicon with metals such as cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium diselinide (abbreviated to CIGS) may be problematic as the need for resources climbs.

“To meet even relatively small percentages of electricity demand by the year 2030, these [thin film] technologies would require historically unprecedented [metals production] growth rates.” said Prof. Trancik.

A nice problem to have as solar energy continues to dominate debate on the future mix of our energy needs? Perhaps, but as the MIT study shows, this brings responsibilities and even difficulties managing the resources required for such a transition.

While regular improvements in PV technology rightly take centre stage in the debate over the benefits of renewable energy over fossil fuel reliance, it would be appropriate to plan ahead for this quantum leap in need for solar energy and use findings such as those in this report to help us select the most sustainable PV technology for the world’s needs.

Comments

  1. I’m actually wondering if there’s going to be enough lithium to meet the demand for ever-improving battery technologies, given Tesla’s rise… and the growth of EV technology and demand across the auto industry.(1)

    I’m looking right now at a brochure advertising Samsung’s SDI off-the-grid battery system. It appears to be the size of the average airline suitcase (maybe slimmer) with an all-in-one PV Inverter, Battery Inverter and Lithium-Ion battery.

    After we missed out on the generous WA-10 year tariff rebate(2) we cooled on the proposition of solar for our own two main dwellings. Storage of our own energy now appears the way-to-go, once panels 400W+ are available. Do you know anything about this Samsung 3-in-1 product, Rich?

    (1) We’re aware that South America’s ABC nations have vast deposits… .
    (2) After having won numerous ten-year contracts for our tenants!~

  2. How are we going to pull off “historically unprecedented [metals production] growth rates” with declining oil production? See http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/10/the-energy-trap/

  3. The Federal government is already backing a big solar program in the NT. When will they wake up to the fact that if they don’t pay a reasonable price for excess generated solar power people will just use it to run their air-cons longer etc. every new house built should have at least a 2 kw system installed in construction, the bit the government subsidise solar power must go a long way to saving on costs of new power stations.

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