Tech Insights

NREL Builds Detailed Database for Wind, Solar Materials

September 07, 2023 by Shannon Cuthrell

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory unveiled a database of essential materials used in wind and solar technologies, including rare earth metals, finished materials, subassemblies and subcomponents, and other vital ingredients for wind turbines and solar panels. 

Wind and solar developers, technology providers, policymakers, and researchers can all benefit from a new database detailing the raw and processed materials used in wind and solar power technologies.


A metal wind turbine.

A metal wind turbine. Image used courtesy of Pexels (Creative Commons)

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)’s Renewable Energy Materials Properties Database (REMPD) details the type, quantity, origin country, uses, availability, and physical properties (thermal, electrical, and mechanical) of critical wind and solar materials—from rare earth metals such as dysprosium and neodymium to subcomponents like diodes to racking systems and other subassemblies. It specifies the materials used in each category and quantifies the amount needed per megawatt of generation capacity. 

NREL’s new tool can inform strategies supporting the federal government’s renewable energy targets, including a carbon-free power grid by 2035 and net-zero emissions by 2050. According to the NREL, the wind energy sector would need to increase its development of new facilities by a factor of 5-10 to meet these goals. However, demand has already outpaced supply for many materials with little to no domestic production capacity in the U.S. 


How Does REMPD Work?

In collecting the data, the NREL’s researchers combined proprietary and nonproprietary information from wind/solar manufacturers and suppliers, and peer-reviewed publications. They used a six-tier approach to collect and organize the data, as outlined in the image below. 


The NREL’s taxonomy for organizing data in the database. (Note: The asterisks signify that not all components in the database have subassembly- and subcomponent-level information, so those two tiers are based on available data.)

The NREL’s taxonomy for organizing data in the database. (Note: The asterisks signify that not all components in the database have subassembly- and subcomponent-level information, so those two tiers are based on available data.) Image used courtesy of NREL/illustration by Nicole Leon


The data covers several ingredients of wind and solar systems, including wind turbines and photovoltaic (PV) modules, subassemblies that make up components, subcomponents like diodes that combine for solar subassemblies, finished materials such as steel or glass, and unaltered raw materials like copper or chromium. 

The five types of wind system components used in the database are:

  • Wind turbines with four assemblies (hub, blades, nacelle/drivetrain, and tower)
  • Land-based system foundations or substructures for offshore systems 
  • Array and export cables for interconnection
  • Site access roads (relevant for land-based plants)
  • Substations

For solar, REMPD details the material requirements for four types of systems: residential, commercial, and utility PV with either crystalline silicon modules or cadmium telluride (CdTe) modules. The database’s solar components include PV modules, inverters, transformers, cabling and racking, and structural balance of system subassemblies. 

NREL states that the proprietary version of the database features more than 200 foreground system materials and over 1,700 background system material flows. These are grouped into seven categories, ranging from steel and concrete to cast iron to composites and polymers. 

The database can be used to calculate various technical needs and material quantities to meet the U.S.’s deployment targets as a percent of global production. For example, nickel’s primary role in wind technologies applies to nacelles, land-based foundations, offshore substructures and towers, with other significant uses being steel, superalloys, and batteries. Nickel’s land-based materials intensity is 2,200 to 4,800 kilograms per megawatt (kg/MW) of generating capacity, while its offshore intensity is 1,900-6,100 kg/MW. As for the country of origin, NREL reports that Indonesia’s share of global nickel production is 31%, followed by the Philippines (with 13%) and Russia (11%). 

Beyond capturing the relevant technical parameters of wind and solar technologies, the NREL also measured the quantity and availability of materials needed to satisfy U.S. deployment goals. Back to nickel as an example: Current nickel production is 2,500 million kg per year, while its projected availability is 95,000 million kilograms. From 2016 to 2019, the U.S. imported most of its nickel from Canada (with a 42% share), Norway (10%), and other European countries. Current U.S. wind deployment levels of 10 gigawatts (GW) per year would require 22-48 million kg per year, while potential future levels (90 GW/year) would require 190-440 million kg annually. 


Analysis of Energy Supply and Demand 

NREL’s technical report summarizes the wind technology advancements needed for the U.S.’s 2035 and 2050 targets. Its assessment was based on two deployment scenarios: maintaining current policies (assuming moderate wind capacity projections, limited changes to plant configuration, such as wind turbine size, and low technology innovations) or pursuing high deployment (with growing capacity, significant changes in wind plant configurations, and moderate materials innovations). 


A timeline of annual U.S. wind energy demand for selected materials compared to global and U.S. production in 2020.

A timeline of annual U.S. wind energy demand for selected materials compared to global and U.S. production in 2020. Image used courtesy of NREL — Figure 15 (Page 39)


Overall, the analysis found that high wind energy deployment would require addressing significant supply-demand gaps for nickel, balsa, electrical steel, glass and carbon fiber, dysprosium, neodymium, and cobalt. When taking these materials out of the equation, the NREL projected that less than 10% of global production for vulnerable and non-vulnerable materials would be needed to meet U.S. wind-sector demand through 2050. However, in the high-deployment scenario, the annual demand for specific materials like balsa and carbon fiber could account for 111% and 268% of global production. 

If future U.S. production remains at 2020 levels, the material needs for U.S. wind energy could reach or exceed the domestic production of carbon and glass fiber, electrical steel, and nickel. Wind plants also use several materials lacking primary production in the U.S., such as graphite, gallium, and manganese.

For solutions,NREL suggested scaling up domestic production, diversifying imports, identifying viable alternatives/substitutes or making components lighter, and changing designs to enable reuse and recycling

An open-source version of REMPD’s outputs is publicly available online