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Solar power’s supply chain crisis pose threat to climate target

A Rystad Energy analysis reveals that to meet the 1.5°C 2050 scenario under the Paris Agreement, capacity has to quadruple to 1,200-1,400 GW by 2035 to handle the peak installations needed.

But this situation could be challenged as manufacturers now see their utilisation rate plummet due to rising costs and Covid-19 and this could discourage the investments needed to expand capacity further.

The aggregated utilisation rate for solar modules (the difference between manufacturing capacity and shipments) was 84 percent in 2018 and has been decreasing since, to 71 percent in 2019 and to 58 percent in 2020, when logistics efficiency and transportation was hampered by the pandemic in most parts of the world.

The energy research firm said the spread of Covid-19 has created a major economic disruption in the market and is expected to continue to impact utilization rates for most of 2021.

It forecasts that in the short to medium term, it will be challenging to keep solar costs down as prices for some input factors have spiked in the past few months.

“The cost of solar projects has declined considerably in recent years, but the cost reductions have now started to taper off and move closer to a floor, currently defined by the price of input factors such as labour, polysilicon, silver, copper, aluminium and steel.

“These input factors have seen a clear rise in prices in 2020 and 2021. Mono-polysilicon, the key ingredient in photovoltaic panels, rose from $7.6 per kilogram in 2019 to $9 per kg in 2020 and is likely to average $18 per kg in 2021. The price of silver, which is important for the connections from the silicon cell to copper wires, has climbed from $550 per kg in 2019 to $850 per kg (on average) in 2021,” the analysts said.

Therefore the combined effect of all input factors is that global solar panel prices have gone up 16 percent so far in 2021 from 2020.

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The weighted price inflation for solar projects, including labour – from installation and other equipment to construction work, which accounts for an increasing share of overall costs – means that total costs are up 12 percent, potentially limiting demand growth for the few next years.

“The entire industry is experiencing shortages in the supply of raw and auxiliary materials, especially polysilicon and silver. Covid-19-related restrictions have not only created supply shortages of essential raw materials but have also led to higher prices, resulting in fewer shipments and impacting revenues for industry participants,” said Audun Martinsen, Head of Energy Service Research at Rystad Energy.

A reduction in the mineral and metal intensities could be key to increasing the production capacity and addressing the supply chain challenge, Martinsen adds.

Rystad analysts said in the longer term, the solar industry must increase capacity and continue to fight cost escalation to meet climate change goals.

It estimates that to maintain the global temperature increase below 1.5°C, solar panel manufactures should ideally grow 10% annually to meet the needed module production capacity of 1,200-1,400 GW by 2035.

In the past, module capacity has grown at a similar rate, however, with the current supply shortages in essential raw materials like polysilicon, silver and glass, and the price hike in auxiliary raw materials, 10 percent growth would be a very ambitious target for solar companies, it said..

“By 2035, the solar PV industry would have to source seven times more silver than what it does today when it already consumes 10 percent of global silver production,” the analysts said.

Limiting global warming to 1.7°C instead is a more achievable scenario under the current supply constraints. As there is enough capacity for another eight years, this should give solar companies more time to expand production capacity.

To accomplish the 1.7°C scenario, companies should be able to expand production capacity to 1,000-1,200 GW by 2045, while still consuming a large part of silver and polycrystalline, in a time frame that allows supply to adapt.

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