Is there enough raw materials for solar?

Fast read

Future energy mix projections indicate that renewable energy sources like solar and wind will play a significant role. Although raw materials like silicon, aluminium, and glass are needed for solar technology. They are also plentiful and recyclable, so there should be enough to supply the rising demand for solar energy.

The growing demand for copper is driving the growth of the electricity industry and the switch to electric vehicles is the biggest obstacle in the transition to complete renewable energy.

But it is anticipated that there will be enough copper to supply this demand with careful planning and investment in new resources.

Do we have enough raw materials to make the earth self-sustainable with renewables?

Nowadays, many experts are expecting solar and wind energy to become the answer to the world’s energy problems. While wave energy and hydro can also contribute, wave energy is still not robust enough and not accessible by all countries. Hydro also requires a high level of water resources, which few governments have.

This leaves wind and solar as the most available renewable resources. Many specialists have identified the vast benefits of solar. Predicting it may become the first choice for energy soon.

With constant improvements in photovoltaic technology, decreasing costs and increasing efficiency. Solar will inevitably be a dominant force in the energy footprint of the future.

What raw materials are in solar panels?

Solar PV technology requires substantial raw materials such as silicon, aluminium, and glass. The question then arises. If solar increases in popularity and more people worldwide adopt a solar system, will there be enough of these raw materials to keep up with the increasing demand?

In short, the answer is yes, but there are also challenges.

We have enough raw materials to produce billions of solar panels

What many people don’t realise is that solar production is relatively straightforward. Almost all the raw materials involved in production are abundant and relatively eco-friendly. As well as most of them are recyclable.

So let’s look at the major components in detail:

The tempered glass layer

This material makes up most of the solar panel’s weight. It is used to allow light to pass through while still protecting the cells from external elements.

Glass is made using silicon, which is derived from sand, and is widely abundant. This means glass as a solar panel material is of little concern. However, it might be necessary for the glass industry to increase its annual production capacity to supply enough raw material.

aluminium mining
Aluminium, although very abundant, involves a lot of energy to extract and produce

Aluminium rails and framing

This raw material is the third most abundant material on the earth. At the same time, it requires high energy to produce. It is not in short supply and has excellent recyclable properties.

She made up to 8% of the earth’s crust. There is no fear of this raw material running out due to solar panel production.

Silicon to manufacture solar cells

Silicon is used to create wafers, the foundation of solar cells. However, like glass, it comes from sand, the second most abundant element, with 26% of the earth’s crust containing silicon.

Silver is used in electrical connections such as busbars

This material is applied sparingly in solar panels; however, with detailed innovation, panel producers have decreased the amount of silver used in solar panels even further over the years. Technologies are already available to replace silver as a component should any shortage arise in future years.

Copper is the Achilles heel of the renewable energy industry

Each year roughly 20 million tonnes of copper is mined. Of this number, the solar industry uses around 420,000 tonnes a year or about 2%. This clearly shows how little the solar industry impacts the supply of this material.

Nevertheless, the demand for copper, being the cheapest conductive material, is estimated to increase up to 10-fold.

This is due to the transition from a fossil fuel-based major electricity network to a renewable, distributed and fragmented energy network. For example, consider all the new cables required to connect solar and wind farms to the grid.

Also, the transition from combustion engines to EVs will increase the need for a more expanded grid, which means more demand for copper. Finding enough new deposits in areas that are accessible and have stable governments will be a challenge.

Potentially the lack of copper could be the biggest obstacle in our path to the energy transition. Unfortunately, it seems governments worldwide have not realised this risk fully, and so far, their projected new investment in finding fresh copper resources is limited.

Given that the development of new mines takes many years, this issue can potentially become a major one in future years.

raw copper being taken from a mine on a conveyer belt
The incredibly finite nature of copper means the capacity for global solar transitioning is stunted

What can we do?

With almost 80% of solar panel weight coming from aluminium and glass alone, with both materials being recyclable, it does not seem like we are limited on materials for solar growth.

Although some constraints are stopping us from going 100% renewable, raw materials (other than copper) are not one of them. Should copper become more challenging to supply, other metals and alloys could be sourced as a replacement, but unfortunately, at a much higher cost.

In the unlikely case that the raw materials listed above start to cause a shortage in supply, recycling the materials is a logical solution.

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