The EU’s attempt to wean itself off fossil fuels by 2050 will require mountains of raw materials for the construction of solar and wind projects and the trading bloc has published a report which attempts to assess material requirements and demand scenarios.
The authors of the report – which considers supply chain threats, as the majority of raw materials must be imported to Europe – consulted the EU’s 2030 and 2050 climate change targets as the basis for modeling the volume of renewable generation capacity required. The researchers then factored in demand from elsewhere around the world for the same raw materials, based on various renewable energy deployment scenarios, and added in the market share of different PV technologies, which require different raw materials. Finally, the effect of R&D reducing the need for raw material volume was also considered.
Using all those variables, the report’s authors devised three clean energy raw material demand scenarios for the bloc.
The most optimistic outlook for solar would involve a net decrease in raw material demand, with technological advances balancing more widespread deployment.
The medium demand scenario envisages materials demand rising between threefold and eightfold but the high demand scenario paints a different picture. Under the latter model, silver demand would rise fourfold and silicon by a factor of 12 by 2050.
Of more concern would be a projected 40-fold rise in demand for cadmium, gallium, indium, selenium and tellurium. Germanium demand, too, could go through the roof, with an anticipated 86-fold rise on the volume imported in 2018.
Structural materials such as concrete, steel and aluminum could rise by a factor of eight by 2030 and 30 by 2050 under the high demand scenario, according to the report. The PV industry currently consumes 60.7 tons of concrete per megawatt of generation capacity installed. Steel demand was estimated at 67.9t/MW; plastic 8.6 tons; glass 46.4; aluminum 7.5; and copper 4.6 tons per megawatt in 2018. For those materials, only minor material requirement reductions were projected by the report’s authors. By 2050, the study anticipated demand for those materials could sit at 80%, 90% or 100% of 2018 levels, depending on the demand scenario.
The ability of innovation to reduce raw material demand was considered an essential factor by the report’s authors. The study noted the material intensity of silicon in c-Si panels dropped significantly in the last decade. In 2004, 16g of silicon was necessary per Watt of panel power rating but the figure had fallen to 4g by 2018 and the European Commission’s Joint Research Center expects the figure to fall to 2.1-3 g by 2028.
“Although the degree of uncertainty surrounding assumption of future performance is inherently high, capturing the benefits of innovations that may be able to reduce the number of materials used in a particular technology per unit of service delivered is indispensable,” the report stated.
In that vein, the researchers said germanium, tellurium, gallium, selenium, silicon, glass and indium could be in short supply in a high-demand scenario, with the requirement for some of those elements outstripping current global supply levels.
That means, the report warned, the energy transition in the EU could be endangered by supply chain weaknesses, with wind power requirements of rare earth metals, neodymium and other permanent magnet materials exacerbating the situation.