Between 2021 and 2050, solar PV’s contribution to the energy mix in Australia is expected to increase from 12% to approximately 50%.
To achieve this, and to support broader renewable energy targets, it is important to consider how Australia can increase its manufacturing independence and better engage with the global supply change for solar cells.
Solar cells represent one component of solar panels, and its key inputs are silicon and polysilicon. Silicon and polysilicon do not occur naturally. Silicon needs to be extracted and processed from rock quartz and silica sand. This is further refined and processed into polysilicon, which is then processed via ingot production into wafers or cells. These are then assembled, with other components, into panels ready for installation.
Currently, quartz extraction is geographically diverse, while the majority of the remainder of the production process from silicon smelting to panel production taking place in China.1
The CSIRO has been studying mineral requirements and the risk in the silicon supply chain for some time. To confirm their own findings, they commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to draft the Australian Silicon Action Plan (ASAP).
The ASAP suggests that Australia can take immediate action to better engage with the global supply chain by considering locations that are best suited for exploration of the quartz resource and commencing local silicon production. As the required smelting process is energy intensive, this needs to be undertaken in areas where energy supply is reliable and affordable.
ASAP also highlights R&D as a crucial element of the overall process of determining how Australia can best engage in this supply chain. It states that there is a need to invest in local research and, where possible, collaboration with current experts.
The plan also details recycling and the setting of targets through regulatory avenues ensuring recycling can be incorporated into production plans and strategies.
Producing silicon in Australia will improve our energy security, boost trade relations with other nations and assist in reaching our own emissions targets. Governments, R&D providers, quartz and silicon producers, and other related stakeholders should work together to push Australia to the forefront in the solar supply chain.
The action plan is available on line.
- CSIRO PWC Australian Silicon Action Plan 2022 p. 9