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News article20 April 2020

Raw materials for the transition to carbon neutrality: the demand will increase

Image of Photovoltaic field and wind mills, illustrating raw materials demand for wind and solar energy
© ©Soonthorn, Adobe Stock / Soonthorn, Adobe Stock

The demand for most raw materials used in solar and wind energy technologies will largely increase in the future. For some of them, the needs in 2050 may exceed current supply levels if no action is taken, according to a new JRC report.

As part of the European Green Deal, the EU has pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2050. Shifting the EU energy system from fossil fuels to renewable sources is a necessary step in this direction.

Most of the renewable energy will be produced by wind turbines and solar panels. The rate of deployment of these technologies will increase rapidly, and so will the demand of raw materials needed to build them.

“Developing wind energy alone to meet our decarbonisation goal in 2050 will require larger volumes of Rare Earths than those currently available at the EU market”, says Samuel Carrara, the leading researcher of the study. “Unless action is taken, this could slow down the deployment of renewable energy.”

The report quantifies the future demand of raw materials for wind and solar energy up to 2050, according to low, medium and high demand scenarios, so that the EU can take measures to avoid potential supply problems.

Demand for structural materials is estimated to grow between 2 and 20 times

The report analyses the future demand of both structural materials, such as concrete, steel, plastic, glass, aluminium, copper and iron, as well as technology-specific materials. Examples of the latter are rare earths, used to make permanent magnets for wind turbine drive systems, and metals such as silicon, gallium, germanium, indium and selenium, which are crucial elements of solar cells.

All the structural materials considered in the report for both wind and solar technology will see an increase in their demand. Depending on the scenario, the annual demand for structural materials in 2050 is predicted to be between 2 and 20 times higher than today.

Demand for solar and wind technology materials will also increase, exponentially

Although materials are expected to be used more efficiently in the future, the overall demand will mainly depend on the volume of renewable technologies that will be deployed. Under the most optimistic assumptions for materials use, the demand for most specific materials would decrease; for example, the 2050 demand for boron would be one-third with respect to today.

In a high-demand scenario, however, the demand for germanium would increase 86 times, that of indium, gallium, tellurium, cadmium, and selenium would increase between 36 and 40 times, and that of neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium and terbium would increase between 14 and 16 times compared to today. This would put additional pressure on materials supply.

Recommendations

The continuous assessment of the future demand of key raw materials is necessary to ensure uninterrupted supply chains that facilitate the large scale deployment of renewable energy in line with our strategic objective of carbon neutrality by 2050.

Possible actions to avoid raw material shortages include diversifying their supplies, expanding trade agreements, increasing recycling and promoting new mining activities. Substitution of critical materials, enabled through a dedicated R&I programme, should be considered whenever possible and economically feasible.

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

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Publication date
20 April 2020