Raw materials demand for wind and solar PV technologies in the transition towards decarbonised energy system

Carrara, S., Alves Dias, P., Plazzotta, B. and Pavel, C. (2020) Raw materials demand for wind and solar PV technologies in the transition towards a decarbonised energy system, EUR 30095 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.

The clean energy transition is inevitable, and it is more urgent than ever. But one thing we often don’t stop to consider is that the materials used to create renewable energy such as wind turbines and solar panels are not in themselves infinite or easily and abundantly available. Many elements and minerals are used in the production process of such technologies, from germanium to selenium, silicon, to copper.

Meeting material demand will be key to achieving the low-carbon energy transition. This means that changes in the supply, consumption and criticality of the materials used in renewable wind and solar PV technologies will be too.

To meet the ambitious goals established for 2030 and 2050 both at EU and at global level, the power generation capacity of renewables, and specifically of wind and solar PV systems, will have to increase in all possible scenarios. The report states that this will require the deployment of new power plants, which will lead to an increased need for components and raw materials.

Most crucially, the modelling shows that in either the medium demand scenario, consistent with a 50% chance of limiting average future temperature increases to 1.75 °C and with energy sector emissions reaching net zero around 2060, or the high demand scenario, leading to a long-term global temperature increase of 1.5 °C with 100% renewable primary energy in 2050, demand for the materials needed to deliver on these outcomes will significantly outstrip supply.

The report finds that for wind turbines, in a medium demand scenario, in the EU alone demand will increase around 5 times for structural materials and around 3.5 times for technology-specific materials. In a high demand scenario, this jumps to 11 and 12 times for structural materials and between 14 and 15 times for technology-specific materials.

Much effort, and potentially some difficult trade-offs, will be needed to ensure stable and secure supplies of technology-specific materials to create the renewable energy infrastructure of the future.

The full article can be found here.