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The aluminium demand risk of terawatt photovoltaics for net zero emissions by 2050

Abstract

The broad electrification scenario of recent photovoltaics roadmaps predicts that by 2050 we will need more than 60 TW of photovoltaics installed and must be producing up to 4.5 TW of additional capacity each year if we are to rapidly reduce emissions to ‘net zero’ and limit global warming to <2 °C. Given that at the end of 2020, just over 700 GW peak was installed, this represents an enormous manufacturing task that will create a demand for a variety of minerals. We predict that growth to 60 TW of photovoltaics could require up to 486 Mt of aluminium by 2050. A key concern for this large aluminium demand is its large global warming potential. We show that it will be critical to maximize the use of secondary aluminium and rapidly decarbonize the electricity grid within 10 years if cumulative emissions are to be kept below 1,000 Mt of CO2 equivalent by 2050.

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Fig. 1: Flowchart of the Al primary production process.
Fig. 2: Annual and cumulative Al demand for the cells, module frames, mountings and inverters until 2050.
Fig. 3: GWP of the estimated Al demand shown in Fig. 2 for different primary emissions reduction scenarios.
Fig. 4: Annual and cumulative emissions from primary and secondary Al production in China.
Fig. 5: Annual and cumulative emissions of the estimated Al demand from primary and secondary Al production.

Data availability

Data used for the modelling are available in Supplementary Dataset 1.

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Acknowledgements

This work has been supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) through the Future Fellowship FT170100447 (awarded to A.L.) and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) research grant number 2017/RND002. We also acknowledge funding support from the Australian Centre of Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP), which is funded by ARENA. J. Buchan (UNSW, Sydney, Australia) and C. Preston (University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia) are thanked for proof reading the manuscript.

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Authors

Contributions

A.L. conceived the study, conducted the modelling and was the primary author of the manuscript. M.L. and P.R.D. contributed to the discussion of sustainability and recycling and B.H. to the discussion on projected PV technology trends. All authors contributed to the manuscript structure and proof reading.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Alison Lennon.

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Peer review information

Nature Sustainability thanks Timothy Laing, Atse Louwen and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–6 and Tables 1–6.

Supplementary Dataset 1

Excel file with modelling data.

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Lennon, A., Lunardi, M., Hallam, B. et al. The aluminium demand risk of terawatt photovoltaics for net zero emissions by 2050. Nat Sustain 5, 357–363 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00838-9

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