Push for solar panels to renew Australia’s regional economies

Australia needs its own supply of solar cells, and it wants them ASAP. That means the CSIRO wants to find regional sites willing and able to operate new silicon smelters.

The Australian Silicon Action Plan (ASAP) details what it will take to mine, manufacture and recycle the nation’s future power generation infrastructure onshore.

That means there’s a lot of demand for solar panels, and a lot of supply chokepoints.

“Our analysis has not only highlighted the increasing need for solar photovoltaic technology – and therefore silicon – as critical to decarbonisation, but revealed that there was a concentration risk in the silicon supply chain,” says CSIRO Principal Research Scientist Dr Chris Vernon.

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Dr Chris Vernon

Some 70 per cent of the world’s silicon is currently produced in China. And that includes the purified polysilicon vital for semiconductors, optical fibres, alloys, batteries and photovoltaic cells. When it comes to making completed solar panels, China’s dominance extends to 97 per cent of the global market.

The CSIRO report says this must change.

“We are entirely reliant on overseas supply chains for the production of solar photovoltaic (PV) technology,” it warns.

Regional relevance

Australia has an abundance of the necessary raw materials – but little existing capacity to refine and smelt them. And significant gaps exist in the process of manufacturing a fully operational home-grown solar panel.

But a complete manufacturing chain can only be established once a supply of refined polysilicon and associated minerals can be guaranteed.

The ASAP report, co-authored by PwC Australia, recommends immediate efforts to identify locations for new silicon smelting facilities.  These would need a ready supply of renewable energy and access to transport logistics to draw in raw materials from across the country.

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“This supply chain starts with our endowment of high-quality quartz, which can be processed to metallurgical grade silicon, then to solar grade polysilicon,” says Dr Vernon. “This supply chain is an essential enabler of the energy transition in a supply-concentrated market.”

Solar cells need high-quality silica sourced from quartz rock.

Silica sand is only suitable for the glass sheets that protect the cells.

But regions such as southwestern Western Australia and northern Queensland have an abundance of quality quartz.

“Australia has several potential sites for silicon production. Many of these are in regional Australia and are close to oil, gas and coal projects,” the ASAP report finds.

Dr Vernon adds that this offers potential for “employment and reskilling opportunities” in regions affected by the move away from fossil fuels.

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Soaring demand

Australia aims to boost the amount of solar energy it consumes from 12 per cent of the market to about 50 per cent by 2050. The CSIRO says this equates to 360GW of installed solar panels within Australia by 2050.

Globally, solar generation must quintuple (grow five-fold) by 2030 if hopes of turning rising temperatures around are to be sustained. By 2050, that figure must be 14 times greater than it is now.

Meeting that demand will require local producers, the report concludes.

“Australia already has the highest per capita deployment of rooftop solar in the world, and there are several mega-projects in the solar development pipeline,” Dr Vernon says. “But one of the greatest risks to Australia’s solar ambitions and energy future is our reliance on overseas supply chains for solar cell technology.”

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Currently, the world simply doesn’t produce enough refined polysilicon to meet projected demand.

And that, the PwC-CSIRO report says, provides an opportunity.

“The energy transition is accelerating at scale and at pace, and geopolitical tensions and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the fragility of Australia’s current supply chains,” the report reads. “Australia has world-leading solar resources and a vast land mass that will allow us to facilitate deployment at scale.”

Essentially, that means the Silicon Action Plan offers a “pathway” for the “development of new industries in regional Australia”, Dr Vernon concludes.

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