Future Coming has an open and curious attitude towards the future when it comes to energy sources. This means, for example, that we are totally against fossil fuels but otherwise we do not join any party for or against. We are neither for nor against nuclear energy, nor for or against renewable energy (yes, there are also those who are against it).
Nevertheless, I cannot help but notice a large patrol of people who reject this form of energy under every post that deals with photovoltaics. And they reject it, saying it pollutes, almost as if it were worse than coal. This, forgive me, just can't be said. Among the energy sources, solar has a very small carbon footprint: agree, most of the emissions come from the production of the solar panels themselves. However, once installed, the panels are virtually emission-free: and over the course of their life they offset a significant amount of carbon dioxide emissions.
Open attitude, it was said. I confirm. This means that, having said that solar has a reduced carbon footprint (understood?), There are certainly some aspects to be absolutely improved.
Let's talk about polysilicon
The scenario is that of the USA. The theme is “polysilicon production”. And polysilicon, you know, is the main component of photovoltaic panels. In all of the United States there are only 4 companies that produce it. One of these, REC Silicon, produces 16.000 tons of polysilicon per year. That would be nearly 30% of all American needs. Two months ago REC Silicon was virtually acquired by a Korean company, the Hanwha Solutions, who found it the majority stake.
The goal, however, is not to take the polysilicon away elsewhere. On the contrary: it is revitalizing the solar market, creating a “born in USA” supply chain, from raw materials to finished products.
If the plan is successful, the US will be able to produce solar panels entirely by itself (Nice Shot for Biden's administration). And they will be able to do so in a considerably greener way than they are today. Well, because making the panels pollutes anyway.
How much does it pollute?
As mentioned, solar already produces the lowest carbon emissions of any source of energy throughout its entire life cycle, including production. Given the enormous growth of the whole sector (the greatest of all energy sources), even these 'relatively small' emissions can reach remarkable figures when added together. How remarkable? Enough to match the emissions figures of a large industrialized nation like France or Germany.
Uno recent study found that in a scenario where the world accelerates on the use of photovoltaics, panel production can bring 25-30 billion tons of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, helping us to contain global warming by 1,5 ° C. And God only knows how much (at least they) the researchers are trying solutions upon solutions. If we don't quickly embrace renewable energy sources like solar, we have little chance of reaching that climate goal. We can increase our chances by "cleaning up" the production of polysilicon, which alone constitutes half the climatic impact of solar photovoltaics.
How to do? Using for example (just like REC Silicon) low-emission hydroelectric power to power the production plant: coal is used in China. Again: a low energy intensity process can be used to purify the polysilicon (process necessary to make the panels efficient), the so-called "fluidized bed reactor".
It can be done
Hanwha's investment can lead the US to produce (at competitive cost) even greener solar energy. In any case, apart from China which is still pushing the accelerator of production with consequences on the environmental impact, in the rest of the world this is a direction already taken. The amount of electricity needed to refine a kilo of silicon for solar panels has dropped by nearly 25% over the past 8 years. Ditto for the amount of silicon needed in solar panels, ever thinner and lighter. And their efficiency constantly grows: + 50% from 1997 to today. More efficiency in a solar panel means less energy and fewer emissions to produce it. The benefit of starting more sustainable production for these energy sources always comes, sooner or later.
There are energy sources and energy sources
Businesses and governments are increasingly concerned about supply chain emissions. This means that any polysilicon manufacturer able to offer a greener product will have more and more advantages in the solar market. Provided, of course, that it adopts more efficient production processes and cleaner energy sources.
The final customer is also more sensitive to the issue. For this reason, when someone turns up their nose on solar, however you think you have to agree: solar photovoltaics already generate carbon emissions from 10 to 20 times lower than fossil fuel energy sources such as gas and coal. If the "virtuous circle" of clean polysilicon is also triggered, solar will become fundamental.