In certain instances, the production of one tonne of aluminum could result in 14-16 tonnes of CO 2.
After solar panels have been operational they can generate electricity without carbon emissions. However, the process of building and installing them will cause certain emissions. Many of the concerns regarding solar panel production has been focused on the components that make up the panels themselves, including germanium, gallium and cadmium selenium, indium and tellurium. However, according to the latest research, the huge amount of aluminium required for the solar arrays in the near future could cause additional problems.
“I hadn’t realized just how much aluminium was required for the frames and the modules, mountings, and inverters,” Alison Lennon, an UNSW Sydney researcher in the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering said to Ars. She said that aluminium is frequently utilized because it’s light and durable to corrosion.
In 2020 the World Bank released an often-cited report that was titled “Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition.” In the study, the authors identified aluminium as one of the minerals that require its production capacity to increase by the largest amount to allow the world to reach its climate targets. “PV was a large contributor,” Lennon stated. “[This] made me think about the problem a bit more.”
But, Lennon said that the World Bank report assumed an earlier International Energy Agency clean energy roadmap that predicted that just four TW photovoltaics needed to be in place in 2050. It’s a modest amount in comparison to what the most recent plans are now forecasting.
In her paper, Lennon, as well as her team, utilized the 60 TW target that was set by the most recently released International Technology Roadmap for Photovoltaics (ITRPV). This means that the world will need to generate 4.5 TW of additional capacity every year up to 2050 to achieve net-zero emission and reduce global warming to less than 2°C. For context, at the end of 2020, just 700 GW had been installed.
Will be able to support the weight
The ITRPV report provides specific details about the condition in the solar energy industry that ranges from the size of modules and their efficiency to the extent to which have frames are made of aluminium. Lennon’s team derived this information from 2030 to 2050 and utilized data from the industry to determine factors like how much aluminium is contained in frames and the amount of recycled aluminium that could be used for frames and mounts. The team also looked into the way the industry could evolve over time, and examined the possibility for enhancing the productivity of the construction process.
Through this analysis of data, The team was able to predict the amount of aluminium that the world will require by 2050.
The total was 486 million tons of metric to be used in frames mounts, frames, as well as inverter casings. To put this figure in perspective, the World Bank estimated around 100 million tons of metric tonnes. “Our estimate is a lot larger than the World Bank’s estimates,” Lennon declared. “The amount of aluminum we’re going to have to produce is going to have to increase an awful lot from what we have now.”
The issue is not that there isn’t enough aluminium in the world, as it’s extremely common and quite easily extracted. However, the extraction and production can cause a large number of greenhouse gases. The production of one-tonne aluminium from bauxite, a popular source of the element – results between 14 and 16 metric tonnes in CO 2 or similar (the paper assumes that the process is carried out within China), Lennon said. “That’s really high,” she added, noting that the process of smelting can be extremely energy-intensive. “If your electricity is sourced by coal-fired power or fossil fuels in general, the emissions intensity [can be] huge.”
Lennon stated that decarbonizing a nation’s electric system can cut down on carbon emissions. It concludes it’s feasible for all countries to obtain enough aluminium to power photovoltaics, but it’s going to require changes to the method of production. Another option is using recycled aluminium. Aluminium can be “infinitely recyclable,” she stated. “[W]e need to think carefully about how the aluminum is produced.”
“I think it’s a good story for the PV industry, provided we can get the aluminum industry working along with us, helping to reduce those emissions,” Lennon declared.