Researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) predict that growth to 60TW of photovoltaics needed to rapidly reduce emissions to ‘net zero’ and limit global warming to <2 °C could require up to 486 Mt of aluminum by 2050. A key concern for this large aluminum demand is its large global warming potential.

Owing to its high conductivity, low weight, and excellent corrosion resistance, aluminum is one of the key raw materials in the solar industry used in cells, module frames, mountings, and inverters. While abundant and cheap, the primary production of aluminum comes at a high cost in terms of energy and associated greenhouse gas emissions, which will need to be taken into consideration if we are to rapidly reduce emissions to ‘net zero’ and limit global warming to <2 °C.

A group of researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have sounded the alarm bell about the climate pressure aluminum could create if we were to solely rely on primary production by 2050. They found that the growth to 60TW of PV, envisaged by the broad electrification scenarios of recent photovoltaic roadmaps, could require up to 486 Mt of aluminum by 2050. This enormous manufacturing task could in turn create climate pressure due to its large global warming potential.

“If the emissions intensity of the primary production process is not reduced, then more than 3000 Mt CO2e could be released in the atmosphere,” researcher Alison Lennon, told pv magazine. “However, if we can decarbonise the electricity used to smelt aluminium, utilize as much secondary aluminium as possible and collect and re-use aluminium from old modules, then we can significantly curtail this global warming.”

To have more than 60TW of photovoltaics installed by 2050, up from just over 700GWp at the end of 2020, we would need to produce up to 4.5TW of additional capacity each year. The researchers assumed a primary production emissions intensity of 14.5 tones of carbon dioxide for each tone of aluminum produced and considered various scenarios. 

They found that without a substantial improvement to the emissions footprint of aluminum production, there could be almost four gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, under a worst-case scenario, the researchers say.