The Solar-Aluminum Nexus: Navigating a Critical Intersection

Posted on: 2023-05-12 14:43


In a world where curbing global warming to less than 2°C has become imperative, monumental reductions in emissions are the order of the day. The clock is ticking. Solar photovoltaics (PV) stand at the forefront of this climatic crusade, powered by their rapidly reducing costs and efficiency enhancements. But as we dig deeper, we encounter an intriguing conundrum, an unexpected twist in the tale - The Aluminum Paradox.

The International Technology Roadmap for PV (ITRPV) paints a broad electrification scenario, envisioning an ambitious goal of 60 terawatts (TW) of installed PV by 2050, and annual installations of 4.5 TW in the years leading up to it. This astronomical surge in PV installations brings to the fore a manufacturing challenge of epic proportions, demanding substantial mineral resources, with aluminum sitting in the limelight.

Aluminum, with its high conductivity, low weight, and excellent corrosion resistance, finds itself extensively utilized in PV modules. However, the flip side of the coin reveals a glaring concern - the significant global warming potential (GWP) stemming from the energy-intensive extraction and processing of this metal.

Market Research

This study's findings highlight the importance of considering material demand and sustainability in the growth of clean energy technologies, particularly solar PV. For businesses involved in the renewable energy sector, this underscores the need for investment in technology innovation to improve material efficiency and recycling capabilities.

The projected significant demand for aluminum could also impact its market price, influencing costs for other industries that rely on this metal. Furthermore, efforts to decarbonize electricity grids might accelerate, leading to potential growth opportunities in the clean energy sector.

For PV module manufacturers and installers, understanding these material demands can help in strategic planning, sourcing, and risk management. Also, companies in the recycling sector may find new opportunities in aluminum recycling given the increasing demand and limited availability of aluminum scrap.

Overall, this research underscores the critical intersection of clean energy, material sustainability, and climate goals, which are all important factors shaping market trends and business strategies in the renewable energy industry.


This report presents an analysis of the projected aluminum demand and associated Global Warming Potential (GWP) of aluminum production for photovoltaic (PV) capacity additions predicted by the 2021 International Technology Roadmap for Photovoltaics (ITRPV) through 2050. Key assumptions and parameters are detailed, including PV capacity projections, module specifications, and aluminum usage.

The study predicts a cumulative aluminum demand of 486 million tonnes (Mt) for 60 terawatts-peak (TWp) by 2050, significantly larger than the 103 Mt projected by the World Bank for ~4 TWp. The increase is due to the larger installed PV capacity in the ITRPV's scenario, yet the 4.7-fold increase in aluminum demand is smaller than the 15-fold increase in installed capacity, owing to anticipated energy conversion and technology efficiency improvements.

The report further explores the effect of field degradation, noting that if PV modules degrade at an average rate of 0.5% per year, aluminum demand could increase to 515 Mt by 2050 due to the need for replacement modules. Moreover, the demand is sensitive to the proportion of rooftop installations, which use lighter aluminum mountings.

The study underscores the need for significantly increased aluminum production to meet demand from PV manufacturing, which could exceed 40% of current annual production levels by 2050. This analysis doesn't account for increased aluminum use in other clean energy technologies, transport, and building infrastructure, potentially underestimating actual demand.

The GWP of the projected aluminum demand is also evaluated under different primary production emissions reduction scenarios. The base scenario assumes a linear reduction from current levels of ~14.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (t CO2e) per tonne of aluminum in 2020 to 1.5 t CO2e by 2050, which would reduce the GWP by 54% compared to maintaining current emissions intensity. The base scenario results in a GWP of 1,672 Mt CO2e by 2050, equivalent to ~5% of global and 16% of Chinese energy-related CO2 emissions in 2019.

Alternative scenarios are compared, including a more optimistic scenario with rapid primary production emissions intensity reduction to ~5 t CO2e per tonne of aluminum by 2030, decreasing to 1.5 t CO2e by 2050. This could reduce GWP to 987 Mt CO2e, only ~28% of emissions if no significant change in emissions intensity occurs. Rapid decarbonization of electricity is highlighted as critical to curtailing emissions from clean energy technologies such as PV.

The study concludes that even with increased recycling, efficient scrap collection, separation systems, and earlier retirement of PV modules, significant primary aluminum production will still be required, leading to high CO2 emissions. These findings suggest an urgent need to explore strategies such as increasing aluminum imports, incentivizing local production, and accessing lower-emission primary aluminum to reduce GWP.


The discussion focuses on the environmental impact of aluminum usage in photovoltaic (PV) systems, specifically the global warming potential (GWP) associated with its production. While reducing aluminum usage in these systems could decrease demand and its associated GWP, any replacement materials need to ensure they don't increase emissions or reduce the product’s value in a circular economy context.

One approach to reduce aluminum usage is to increase PV module efficiency and size. For instance, increasing the module area from 1.8 to 3.8 m2 via larger silicon wafers could reduce the mass of required aluminum by 16% per watt. Accelerating the adoption of frameless modules could also reduce aluminum demand, given their lighter weight and lower embodied energy. However, for substantial GWP reduction, this transition would need to happen over the next decade.

A promising strategy to decrease the GWP of aluminum demand is to lower the emissions intensity of primary aluminum production. This requires significant investment in transforming aluminum refining and smelting. One approach is to locate new aluminum production facilities in Renewable Energy (RE) zones, utilizing 100% renewable power. Existing aluminum production, often co-located with thermal coal power sources, presents a more complex challenge.

Over the past 20 years, significant reductions in process-related emissions have been achieved, particularly in reducing emissions from perfluorocarbons (PFCs). Further reductions will be needed to reach an emissions intensity of 1.5 t CO2e per ton of aluminum.

New technologies can also reduce emissions from the refining of bauxite to alumina. Potential options include electric boilers for low process heat, concentrated solar thermal in regions rich in solar resources, biomass co-generation with hydrogen for process heat, and co-location of aluminum refineries and smelters.

Despite the challenges, efforts are being made to replace the carbon anodes used in the Hall-Héroult electrolysis process with inert anodes, which would eliminate direct CO2 emissions. However, this approach is still at an early stage of commercialization and has energy consumption issues if not paired with decarbonized electricity.

From a future perspective, aluminum's recyclability, lightweight nature, and resistance to corrosion make it critical for PV system growth. Given its potential GWP impact, the study suggests that rather than replacing aluminum with other metals, it would be more effective to incentivize emissions reduction in primary aluminum production and encourage recycling through carbon border taxes and landfill taxes. This would align with a circular economy approach and contribute to the goal of reaching net-zero emissions. Market research and analysis indicate that these strategies could have significant implications for the sustainability and economics of the PV industry.


In conclusion, the solar energy revolution will not just be about harnessing the sun's power. It will also be about navigating the intricate intersections of clean energy, material sustainability, and climate goals. The aluminum conundrum is a critical challenge we must confront and resolve.

As we move ahead, let's remember that the decisions we make today will shape the market trends and business strategies in the renewable energy industry of tomorrow. The answers may not be straightforward, but the quest for them promises to lead us to a future where our commitment to clean energy and sustainability are in harmony.

It's a future where we're not just building a brighter world, but also a greener one. And it's a future where the promise of solar power is fully realized, not just in the energy it produces, but in the ways we produce it.

As we tackle the aluminum conundrum, we must continue to innovate, rethink, and reimagine. We must explore strategies such as increasing aluminum imports, incentivizing local production, and accessing lower-emission primary aluminum to reduce GWP. We must embrace the circular economy approach, incentivize emissions reduction in primary aluminum production, and encourage recycling through carbon border taxes and landfill taxes.

The task ahead is certainly challenging, but it is not insurmountable. As we continue to work towards the goal of 'net-zero' emissions by 2050, we must remember that every decision, every step, and every innovation counts. Together, we can navigate this critical intersection of clean energy, material sustainability, and climate goals to create a sustainable and resilient future.

As we conclude, we leave you with this thought: The future of solar is not just in the sky. It's also in the ground beneath our feet, in the aluminum we mine, refine, and recycle. It's in the decisions we make, the technologies we develop, and the strategies we implement. The future of solar, in essence, is in our hands.

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