As the demand for solar energy has increased so has the demand for the metals needed in the production of solar or photovoltaic panels and the batteries. However, a number of renewable energy forms (wind turbines, for example) and technology items (such as mobile phones) that we use daily have added to that growing demand as they also require metals for their production. As a result it can be hard to quantify what is required by solar specifically.
Metals used in solar panels and batteries
There is a very wide range of metals used in solar panels and many are used in minute quantities. These are, in alphabetical order: Arsenic (used in semi-conductor chips), Aluminum, Boron minerals (used in semi-conductor chips), Cadmium (used in certain types of cells), copper (used in wiring and certain types of cells), Gallium, Indium (used in cells), Iron ore (steel), Molybdenum (used in photovoltaic cells), Phosphorous, Selenium, Silica, Silver, Tellurium, and Titanium.
Some of these metals, such as Iron and Copper, are plentiful and mined in numerous locations. Others, including the so-called “rare earth” minerals are expensive and or scarce and or only available in one or few countries.
The batteries are far less metal-intensive as one is essentially dealing with either Lead or Lithium.
Metal scarcity and its impact
Nicola Jones wrote an article titled A Scarcity of Rare Metals is Hindering Green Technologies published by Yale Environment 360. She discusses the situation in vivid and worrying terms. For example: “The move toward new and better technologies… means an ever-increasing demand for exotic metals that are scarce thanks to both geology and politics. Thin, cheap solar panels need tellurium, which makes up a scant 0.0000001% of the earth’s crust, making it three times rarer than gold.”
Jones goes on to say that the unprecedented demand for these metals created by renewable energy caused their average price to increase by a staggering 750% in 2011 and this crisis only ended when new trade deals were brokered.
Because the dangers of shortages, embargoes, and having to close aging mines, etc. remain, attention has been turned to potential solutions such as reusing, recycling, and finding alternative sources, opening new mines, and improving mining methods to increase efficiency and decrease costs.
Solar power and silver
Solar production and further development may at some point be affected to various degrees as trade agreements and metal availability changes. This is no truer than in terms of the precious metal that solar power has affected the most: Silver. In The Impact of Solar Power Projects on Silver Consumption published in 2014 by Kitco Metal Inc., the author states that, “the average solar panel contains between 15 and 20g of silver” and that “solar could equal or exceed the silver volumes previously used in the photographic film industry.”
Silver went through a slump but the situation in terms of demand has dramatically changed and the primary reason is solar power. Tim Maverick of Wall Street Daily reported that, “there’s another new demand source and, surprisingly, it’s coming from the industrial sector. Last year , this sector accounted for 56% of overall demand for the precious metal … silver is an energy metal – it’s a necessary component in photovoltaic solar cells in the form of paste used as a conductor… The solar industry alone is forecast to use at least 70 million ounces of silver this year.”
Protecting the future
There are websites and groups of individuals and organizations such as Solar Action Alliance that keep readers up to date with new developments in terms of solar power including in the aspects that relate to growing and further this source of renewable, sustainable energy.
Recycling and reusing metals
Tons of what is now referred to as e-waste is thrown away each year. In theory, all the rare and other metals used in solar panels and batteries can be removed and recycled. What still needs to be established is whether it is viable long-term and what the economies of scale are. There are now companies, notably in Japan and Belgium, that process this type of highly specialized but increasingly important waste.
Once the metals needed in the production of solar power panels or cells have been recovered they can be reused. This will help to cushion solar energy and the developments in the field from any shortages or supply problems caused by failing resources or political issues.
New technology is requiring less expensive and rare metals. A final solution to protecting the future of both solar power and the metals it requires is to find alternative materials. Some new photovoltaic technology uses less-expensive and abundant metals such as zinc and copper in place of “rare earth” metals like Gallium and Indium.