A new analysis led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) suggests that an “unprecedented ramp-up of production capacity” is required in the next two decades to achieve global decarbonization. The research indicates that the global electrical system requires 63.4 terawatts of installed nameplate capacity of photovoltaics (PV) between 2050 and 2060, which is a 60-fold increase from the current installed PV worldwide.

Manufacturing Industry Shock

Jao van de Lagemaat, director of the Chemistry and Nanoscience Center at the U.S. Department of Energy’s NREL, believes that a “relatively modest demand” for additional PV will be required even after decarbonization is achieved to keep up with module retirement and population growth. However, this will lead to an expected shock to the manufacturing industry, where less manufacturing capacity will be needed after decarbonization is achieved.

Disruptive Technologies and Cost Savings

The paper, “Photovoltaic Deployment Scenarios Toward Global Decarbonization: Role of Disruptive Technologies,” published in the journal Solar RRL, suggests that disruptive solar technologies such as perovskites and tandem photovoltaics can help lower the cost of the transition. These technologies could potentially be cheaper to manufacture than silicon PV on a per-watt basis and could lead to cost savings for manufacturers of hundreds of billions of dollars, leading to a more sustainable solar manufacturing industry.

To achieve the decarbonization target, manufacturers will need to scale up production capacity to reach 2.9–3.7 terawatts a year within 10–15 years, costing between $600 billion to $660 billion. The analysis shows that these goals can be reached using existing technology and expected further cost reductions in mature technologies that use silicon and cadmium telluride.

The study assumes that after the decarbonization goal is reached, manufacturers will be reluctant to build new factories because of the drop in demand trajectories for PV modules. Therefore, the factories are assumed to have a 15-year lifetime, so new ones will only be built if they are projected to sustain full output throughout their useful lifetime.

Moreover, the analysis also assumes that the lifespan of a PV module will increase considerably, which will exacerbate the shock to solar manufacturing because it will take longer before replacement will be needed. Researchers have been experimenting with extending the longevity of these modules from an average of 30 years in 2020 to 50 years by 2040.

In conclusion, the researchers believe that there are economically viable trajectories to achieve the required manufacturing capacity to produce the necessary amount of PV for global decarbonization. Emerging technologies could potentially lower the cost of this deployment significantly if they get commercialized in time. The disruptive technologies will have an overall manufacturing market opportunity between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, even if the total amount of PV installed is substantially less than 63.4 terawatts.


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