photovoltaics is approaching a crucial shift

The exploitation of solar energy is already transforming our daily lives and will continue to be a formidable tool… provided that the industry anticipates

Today, no one is unaware of the considerable impact of the energy sector on our environment. It is this observation that has motivated the industry to take an interest in renewable energy, and in particular solar energy. If the latter is indeed one of the star technologies in the field, a study reminds us that it is not a panacea for all that; we must now think about the long term to avoid finding ourselves in an industrial and environmental cul-de-sac.

This is in any case the conclusion of the work of Australian researchers from the University of New South Wales spotted by ScienceAlert. They were interested in the future of this sector and the issues that must be taken into account to ensure its sustainability. And as often in ecology, at the top of the list, we find the resource issue.

Demand will soon explode…

The researchers begin their analysis by citing the work of their colleagues. They estimate that it would be necessary to install more than 60 TW of photovoltaic equipment by 2050. Otherwise, it would be very difficult to stick to current climate objectives. This is more than 85 times the current global photovoltaic capacity, estimated at around 700 GW in 2020. The International Energy Agency (IEA) agrees; it considers that solar should represent around a third of the world’s energy production by 2050.

In the absence of a revolutionary technology capable of changing the game, it will therefore be necessary to produce massive quantities of photovoltaic cells in the years to come. And that’s the rub; because even if they constitute a means of producing so-called “green” energy once they are installed, the environmental impact of solar panels is not exclusively positive.

…and aluminum needs with

Indeed, going back to the beginning of the chain, we quickly realize that their production requires a significant amount of aluminum. Here, the concern is not the risk of shortage as it is the case for rare materials; on the contrary, aluminum is an extremely common metal on Earth. The problem lies more in the extraction and processing of this metal.

Indeed, industrial aluminum is produced from bauxite, an ore that requires several stages of refining. It starts with the removal of other elements from the ore, which requires dangerous chemicals; alumina is then obtained. This must still undergo extremely energy-intensive electrolysis and heating processes before obtaining pure aluminum. It is a sector whose environmental impact no longer needs to be demonstrated.

But based on the forecasts of researchers and the IEA, this production will have to be increased massively in the years to come. To meet demand, it will be necessary multiply production by more than five to produce nearly 500 million tonnes of aluminum per year by 2050, with all that entails in terms of environmental impact…which seems a tad paradoxical in the context of our climate objectives.

A technology of the future to perpetuate now

Does this mean that the solar energy industry is a vast hoax, a snake that will come back to bite its own tail in a few decades? Absolutely not. At present, photovoltaics remains one of the most promising tools to hope to get out of this ecological mess. And with technological advances that continue to make solar panels more and more interesting, we would be wrong to deprive ourselves of them.

What researchers seek to highlight is above all that there is no no miracle cure for the situation we find ourselves in. Every solution, no matter how good, also has hidden issues which it would be unreasonable to ignore. We must therefore remain lucid, and anticipate this shift now.

To get the most out of this technology in the future, the researchers suggest first and foremost systematize the recycling of aluminum. Its environmental impact is indeed almost negligible compared to the initial production. With a sufficiently developed secondary aluminum sector, it would be possible to approach this transition more serenely and to make the most of this fabulous technology which will undoubtedly play a decisive role in the future of our civilization.

The text of the study is available here.

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