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The shift towards solar will mean at least a doubling of demand in that sector for aluminium, copper and zinc by 2040, according to a new report from Wood Mackenzie.

The rate of growth is potentially much greater depending on the speed of the energy transition as governments fulfil commitments to limit global warming.

“Base metals are an integral component of solar power systems,” Wood Mackenzie senior research analyst Kamil Wlazly.

“A typical solar panel installation requires aluminium for the front frame and a combination of aluminium and galvanised steel (zinc) for structural parts.

“Copper is used in high and low-voltage transmission cables and thermal solar collectors.”

As costs continued to fall, solar’s share of power supply would rise – presenting a huge opportunity for the base metals sector, he said.

In Wood Mackenzie’s base case scenario, which is broadly consistent with a 2.8-3˚C global warming view, aluminium demand from solar technologies sits at around 2.4 million tonnes (Mt) for 2020. This is expected to rise to 4.6 Mt by 2040.

However, under Wood Mackenzie’s proprietary Accelerated Energy Transition-2 (AET-2) and Accelerated Energy Transition-1.5 (AET-1.5) scenarios, consumption growth will range from 8.5 Mt to 10 Mt by 2040.

Copper consumption is also expected to register notable gains from solar power generation, particularly photovoltaic (PV) systems.

Wood Mackenzie’s base case scenario puts copper demand from solar at 0.4 Mt in 2020, and this is expected to rise to almost 0.7 Mt by 2040.

Meanwhile, under Wood Mackenzie’s AET-2 and AET-1.5 scenarios, copper consumption from solar is expected to increase to around 1.3 Mt and 1.6 Mt, respectively, by 2040.

However, given the rising price of copper, there was potential for aluminium to penetrate wire and cable applications in installations where copper was currently the favoured metal choice, Mr Wlazly said.

Wood Mackenzie estimates that solar power installations currently account for approximately 0.4 Mt of global zinc consumption, with this number projected to grow to 0.8 Mt by 2040 in Wood Mackenzie’s base case.

Under the AET-2 and AET-1.5 scenarios, consumption growth would range from 1.7 Mt to 2.1 Mt, respectively, by 2040.

The trend towards manufacturing larger solar modules will have a mixed impact on metal intensity, according to Wood Mackenzie.

“As the module’s surface and tracker area increase, we expect the use of structural components to scale at a similar rate to maintain strength and rigidity,” Mr Wlazly said.

“As a result, the use of aluminium and zinc (galvanised steel) per module will increase, leaving the intensity (kg/kW) broadly unchanged.

“In contrast, the use of copper is expected to decline as larger modules will cause a reduction in the number of panels per given capacity of the plant, resulting in a drop in the overall number and length of cables.

“However, the overall decline in intensity will be marginal as panel size will not affect the diameter of the cable or transformer, both of which account for a significant proportion of copper use.

“Additionally, the impact on metal demand by the increase in module size will be limited to utility-scale solar plants, which currently only account for a third of installed capacity.”