As countries around the globe push towards net zero emissions targets, new research has highlighted an area of environmental concern in the production of solar panels.
- The annual demand for solar power by 2050 could require more than 40 per cent of current global aluminium production
- Aluminium production is emissions intensive, but refineries are increasingly turning to renewable energy
- If Australia produces low-emissions aluminium it could be a valuable export opportunity
An Australian study has found that to reach net zero milestones, the world will need almost 60 times more solar power, which will cause “concerning” levels of global warming.
Photovoltaic engineering researcher Alison Lennon said part of the problem was the emission-intensive production of aluminium, with solar panel components made with mostly aluminium frames, inverter casings, rooftop cells and mounts.
“The emissions that could be generated in producing that aluminium are really concerning,” Professor Lennon said.
“Australia is actually the largest producer of bauxite, and one of the largest producers of alumina – so there’s a real opportunity for Australia to play a big role in this growth of renewable energy.”
The study revealed that for the global community to reach net zero by 2050, about 60 terawatts of solar power along with 480 megatons of aluminium would be required.
Currently, there is 0.8 terawatts, or 800 gigawatts of solar available globally.
The China opportunity
Professor Lennon said that in coming years, as countries consider possible carbon border taxes, Australia’s high-emissions aluminium will not be as competitive to the international market.
But if Australia could produce low-emissions aluminium, it would be a valuable export and manufacturing opportunity.
She said Australia has the upper hand over countries such as China when it comes to greening aluminium production due to the location of our refineries.
“In China, where most of the aluminium is currently produced, it’s a little bit harder to do that because all their solar farms are way out west,” Professor Lennon said.
“There’s a lot of solar resources but their smelters and refineries tend to be on the east coast where it’s not as sunny.
“In order to convert their smelters and refineries … they would have to build very large transmission lines from west to east.”
Professor Lennon said Australia has four smelters, including one in Tasmania which is hydro-powered and produces less than five tonnes of emissions per tonne of aluminium.
She said all of the mainland Australian smelters are powered by coal, producing ‘well over’ 10 tonnes of carbon emissions per tonne of aluminium.
Sector prepares for renewables
Mining company Rio Tinto last year committed to powering its aluminium assets with renewables by 2030, reducing its carbon emissions by 50 per cent by the same year.
The company is already studying the use of hydrogen to replace natural gas in the alumina refining process in central Queensland, while in Canada where Rio Tinto’s smelters are hydro-powered, it is commercialising a process to remove carbon emissions from the aluminium smelting process.
The company also signed a statement of co-operation with the Queensland Government to establish renewable energy in central Queensland.
Rio Tinto aluminium chief executive Ivan Vella said the move showed the company’s commitment to making its long-term industrial assets greener.
The company has said switching its Queensland-based Boyne Island and New South Wales-based Tomago smelters to renewables will require approximately five gigawatts of solar and wind power, as well as having a guaranteed alternative supply which could be from other energy sources.
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