How the availability of rare elements is affecting the future of solar photovoltaics
Meeting the world's growing demand for energy, minimizing related impacts on the environment and reducing the potential geopolitical tensions associated with increased competition for energy supplies represent some of the greatest technical and policy challenges of the next several decades.
Research to develop alternative energy sources to displace conventional fossil fuels, including relevant economic management, social science and policy dimensions, is critical to meeting these objectives.
Fossil fuels supply more than 80 percent of the world's primary energy but they are finite resources and major contributors to global warming. The ways and means for their ultimate replacement with clean, affordable and sustainable energy sources at the scale required to power the world are not yet fully obvious, readily available or, in many instances, technically feasible.
Alternative sources are not all benign and their impacts on the environment, particularly when deployed at scale, are not fully understood. Also, renewable and efficiency technologies rely on some essential critical materials, which may be scarce or unavailable in quantities necessary to meet future demand. Further, existing energy infrastructures in the United States and around the world are complex and very large, represent enormous capital investment and have operational life spans of 50 years or more.
Wholesale or even piecemeal replacement of these infrastructures will be costly, will take time and will be frequently resisted by entrenched interests. Finally, meeting dramatic increases in energy demand, particularly in the developing world, will compound these problems at the same time that it enables opportunities for enhanced national stability, economic development and improved quality of life.
The coordination of policy, regulation and technology development is critical to the widespread market diffusion of transformational energy technologies. The development of appropriate, technically informed and economically sound incentives and investments to promote development and deployment of these technologies must seek to:
- Avoid the stranding of existing assets.
- Optimize the investment of scarce research dollars.
- Recycle, replace and reduce use of critical materials.
- Minimize potential economic dislocation during the transition to a sustainable energy future.
- Preserve the fundamental and desirable drivers and aspects of free markets by internalizing policy and regulatory costs to the maximum extent possible.
- Maximize the opportunities for successful transformation of global energy systems.