Silver Demand Grows as Solar Leads Renewables
- View Critical Materials September 2023 Performance Table
For the latest standardized performance of the Sprott Energy Transition ETFs, please visit the individual website pages: SETM, LITP, URNM, URNJ, COPJ and NIKL. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
- Solar panels have emerged as a critical player in transitioning to clean, sustainable and secure energy sources.
- Among numerous advantages, solar has one of the lowest megawatt-per-hour (MWh) costs among energy sources, a small environmental impact and a long life expectancy.
- Evolving solar panel technology is driving a surge in demand for silver, which has unique properties that play a vital role in improving solar cell efficiency and performance.
- Solar panel needs could exert considerable pressure on the silver market in the next decade, dramatically causing demand to outpace primary supply.
- The Nasdaq Sprott Energy Transition Materials Index rose modestly in September, boosted by surging uranium prices, which overrode weakness in other energy transition materials.
September in Review
The Nasdaq Sprott Energy Transition Materials Index (NSETM) increased 2.42% in September to close the month at 983.45. For the nine months ending September 30, the Index returned 5.31%.
September witnessed a wide dispersion of returns. For example, spot uranium surged 21%3 to a 12-year high, and uranium miners jumped 24%.9 Year to date, spot uranium and uranium miners have both returned over 50%. For most of the year, uranium had firming fundamental support from several sources, including utilities contracting U3O8, growing supply concerns, and long-term growth projections that were revised higher (see Uranium Rally Gains Power in September).
Despite market stresses, these uranium surges helped the energy transition complex close higher in September. Other metal groups in the energy transition complex came under further downward pressure from a combination of factors, including continuing weak China data, concurrent rapid rises in the U.S. dollar (USD) and real yields, and fears of slowing future demand.
The equity market faced increased challenges in September due to a stronger USD, worries about increased debt issuance and deficits, rising real yields and widening economic disparities between the U.S., China and the EU. Weakness in significant currencies such as the yen (due to the Bank of Japan’s yield curve control policy) and the yuan (due to China’s economic and credit problems) continue to boost the USD but create currency risk elsewhere. Countries with weak currencies that cannot afford further depreciation are straining under the higher rates needed to defend their currencies. The other option for currency support — selling foreign exchange reserves — becomes a de facto liquidity drain. The spike in crude oil prices adds to the risk by draining reserves and increasing growth concerns, particularly in the already fragile Chinese and EU economies.
Real yields have reached 15-year highs at an alarming pace, further tightening financial conditions. Historically, simultaneous increases in the USD, real yields and crude oil prices have detrimentally impacted risk assets. Yet, as seen in Figure 1, the Nasdaq Sprott Energy Transition Materials Index remains unfazed.
Figure 1. Nasdaq Sprott Energy Transition Materials Index Still Consolidating (2018-2023)
Source: Bloomberg. Nasdaq Sprott Energy Transition Materials Index (NSETM). Data as of 9/30/2023. Top Half of Chart: Red line indicates bottom level support; blue line indicates trend over time. Bottom Half of Chart: Moving average convergence/divergence is a trend-following momentum indicator that shows the relationship between two exponential moving averages (EMAs, red and black lines), calculated by subtracting the 26-period EMA from the 12-period EMA. Included for illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Updates on Critical Materials
Lithium: Soft Demand Undermines Prices
The lithium carbonate spot price continued its descent in September, falling 17.79% over the month to $10.35 per pound (see Figure 2). China dominates global demand for lithium and, in the past, has exhibited seasonality, with more demand in the fourth quarter and restocking ahead of this peak season. Restocking has not materialized this year, and short-term weakness in Chinese electric vehicle (EV) demand has weighed on prices. However, despite the steep decline in the lithium spot price since its November 2022 high, prices are still much higher than their historical levels (for example, in late 2020, the lithium spot price was below $3 per pound).
The transport sector accounted for 76% of lithium demand in 2022 (according to BloombergNEF), and China accounted for 58% of EV sales, with six million EVs sold. Because of this, the current weakness in China has had a significant impact on commodity prices. However, the U.S., which is the second largest seller of EVs with just under one million sold in 2022, has not experienced the same weakness in demand as China in 2023. U.S. EV sales data released in September show multiple positive developments. Based on preliminary Q3 reports, U.S. EV sales in 2023 have already passed the one million mark for the first time.16 U.S. EV battery sales are experiencing exponential growth. While it took a decade to achieve the first cumulative million in sales, it took just two years for the second million and a mere year for the third million. 17
In September, stocks of lithium miners fell by 8.31% as the lithium spot price dropped. Other factors weighed on capital-intensive sectors, including hawkish U.S. monetary policy sentiment, the strong USD and weak Chinese economic data. Although the lithium spot price drop has reduced miners’ margins, they are still profitable at current prices. Lithium mining equities have been a more attractive investment than lithium itself because of the rise in announced offtake agreements, direct equity investments by original equipment manufacturers into lithium miners, merger and acquisition (M&A) activity and grants and loans provided to miners by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
With regard to M&A activity in September, Sigma Lithium Corporation received proposals to sell the company, with details yet to be disclosed publicly.18 This followed the events of early September when Liontown Resources Limited's share price jumped 11.50% as its board backed a refreshed A$6.6 billion takeover bid from Albemarle Corporation, the world’s largest lithium producer.19
The U.S. has recognized the need for massive investment in U.S. lithium production. The DOE’s loan program is another potential tailwind for lithium miners and is supporting several lithium development projects in the U.S. Lithium Americas Corp. reported in September that it was in talks with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for a $1 billion loan for its Nevada project.20 If the DOE funding goes through, it will represent nearly half the project’s $2.27 billion budget and be the first of its kind. The DOE gave Ioneer Ltd (a lithium and boron miner) a $700 million loan in January 2023.21 Albemarle Corporation received a $90 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense in September to raise domestic output at its Kings Mountain lithium mine (for which the DOE also gave a $150 million grant in 2022 to fund construction).22
Figure 2. Lithium Continues to Decline (2018-2023)
Source: Bloomberg. Lithium carbonate spot price, $/lb, 2018-2023. Data as of 9/30/2023. Included for illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Copper: Strong Dollar Weighs on Market
The copper spot price fell 2.28% to $3.73 per pound in September (see Figure 3), and shares of copper miners fell 3.31%. The U.S. Federal Reserve signaled that rates would stay higher for longer in September, which raised bond yields and took the USD to its highest level since November 2022. These developments challenged global markets, including copper.
Copper has a strong negative correlation with the USD (-0.58 correlation coefficient over the last five years). The copper spot price has been largely range-bound over the previous five months, falling on disappointing economic data from China and rising on the potential of Chinese stimulus. China accounts for approximately 50% of global refined copper demand, and China’s manufacturing and construction sectors have been weak. This directly contrasts expectations at the start of the year when markets believed China’s post-COVID reopening would boost these sectors.
Despite this activity, copper has managed to avert the larger year-to-date drawdowns in other metals markets. We believe this is due to favorable demand fundamentals and uncertain supply. Chilean state-owned copper miner Codelco recently reduced its guidance for copper production to the lowest in 25 years. Chile is the world’s largest copper producer, with 27% of the global market in 2022. In Peru — the second-largest copper producer with 11% of the global market — the head of the country’s National Society of Mining, Petroleum and Energy, Victor Gobitz, indicated that Peru’s copper production would likely flatten in the new year due to a slowdown in investment.
On a positive note, supportive tailwinds may be created by these negative developments and global supply impediments (like declining ore grades, fewer major copper discoveries and long lead times of 16.5 years from discovery to first production). Nearly 70% of all copper produced is used in electrical applications,23 making copper critical to the energy transition. Energy transition-related demand for copper is slated to increase nearly four fold by 2040 relative to 202224 to meet net-zero carbon emissions targets.
Figure 3. Copper Softens Despite Tailwinds (2018-2023)
Source: Bloomberg. Copper spot price, $/lb, 2018-2023. Data as of 9/30/2023. Included for illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Nickel: Negative Macro Factors Weaken Price
The nickel spot price fell 8.20% in September (see Figure 4), and shares of nickel miners fell 4.08%. Over this year, rising supply from Indonesia — the world's largest nickel producer at 48% of global production — has weighed on the nickel market.25 In September, there was some reprieve as Indonesia announced it would not approve any new mining quotas for the remainder of the year.26 (Indonesian miners are issued annual production and sales quotas, referred to as RKAB.) The announcement caused increased short-term nickel demand from the Indonesian midstream; however, the nickel price still fell on negative macroeconomic developments.
Figure 4. Nickel Soft on Economic Uncertainty (2018-2023)
Source: Bloomberg. Nickel spot price, $/lb. 2018-2023. Data as of 9/30/2023. Included for illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Solar and Silver: Twin Pillars of Energy Transition
1. Solar Leads the Drive to Clean Energy
As the world progresses along the energy transition curve, the rapid expansion of solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is a key constituent. Solar panels have emerged as a critical player in transitioning to clean, sustainable, secure energy sources.
Solar PV panels harness sunlight and convert it to electricity. The panels’ core component is the solar cell, typically made from crystalline silicon. When sunlight strikes the solar cell, it excites electrons, creating an electric current. Solar panels dominate in energy transition because of their numerous advantages. They produce clean energy at one of the lowest megawatt-per-hour costs compared to conventional energy sources (see Figure 5). Once installed, solar panels have a low environmental impact and a long life expectancy (25+ years) with minimal maintenance.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that solar energy capacity will grow faster than any other energy source on a cumulative global basis (see Figure 6). With the cost of renewable electricity now lower than fossil fuels, solar is expected to account for 98% of the expansion in global electricity capacity over the IEA’s forecast period through 2030.
Figure 5. Solar and Wind Cost Less (2014-2023)
Figure 6. Solar Set to Dominate Installed Capacity (2010-2030)
Source: International Energy Agency, “Net Zero Roadmap, 2023 Update”. Forecasts made under the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario. Included for illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
From 2020 to 2030, solar capacity additions are expected to grow at a robust annualized rate of approximately 17% globally, according to BloombergNEF (see Figure 7). Cumulative solar PV capacity is forecast to expand by over five fold with almost 5,000 GW in new additions, surpassing natural gas and coal by mid-decade. However, there are challenges ahead as the energy transition process evolves.
Figure 7. Global Trends in Solar Demand and Supply (2020-2030)
Source: BloombergNEF. Data as of 9/30/2023. Included for illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
China Controls Solar Supply Chains
China currently plays a central role in global solar PV supply chains, with about 80%27 of market share across all stages of solar panel manufacturing. This dominance results from strategic government policies, massive investments exceeding $50 billion since 201128 and continuous innovation. The scale achieved has significantly lowered solar PV costs, making clean energy more affordable worldwide.
China's solar PV products are an important export, contributing significantly to the country's trade surplus. Furthermore, Chinese investments in neighboring countries have transformed them into major exporters of PV products. (At the same time, concerns persist about the environmental impact of solar PV manufacturing in China, as much of the energy used in the process comes from coal-fired power plants.)
Despite the growth of solar PV, challenges loom large, particularly regarding the concentration of supply chains. Manufacturing capacity for crucial components like polysilicon, ingots, wafers, cells and modules must double by 2030 to increase solar PV capacity. However, the high concentration of production in China, especially in Xinjiang province, raises concerns about resilience, affordability and sustainability.
Furthermore, the demand for critical minerals in solar PV production, primarily controlled by China, is expected to surge as the world moves toward net-zero emissions. Ensuring the long-term financial stability of the solar PV manufacturing sector is essential for a rapid and cost-effective clean energy transition. Trade restrictions, such as tariffs and import duties, pose additional challenges. These measures risk disrupting the supply chain and slowing down the deployment of solar PV in regions outside of China.
Diversifying Solar PV Supply
Diversification of supply chains is essential to reduce vulnerabilities and unlock economic and environmental opportunities. Recent global events, including COVID-related supply chain issues and geopolitical conflicts, have underscored the risks of relying heavily on imports for critical goods like energy components.
The solar PV industry presents an opportunity for diversification, with the potential for global investment exceeding $120 billion by 2030.29 This would require doubling current annual investment levels throughout the supply chain, especially in critical sectors like polysilicon, ingots and wafers. Additionally, diversification would create jobs, potentially doubling the number of direct manufacturing jobs to one million by 2030.30
2. Why Silver is Critical to Solar Panel Technology
As the solar industry continues its exponential growth, silver is experiencing a surge in demand, driven primarily by the evolving technology of solar panels. Silver's unique properties, including its exceptional electrical conductivity, thermal efficiency and optical reflectivity, play a vital role in enhancing the efficiency and performance of solar cells. Solar panels rely on silver for several critical components, including the front contact fingers, busbars and soldering of solar cells. These components ensure the electricity generated by the solar cells flows efficiently and maximizes energy conversion efficiencies.
The Limits of Efficiency
Over the past decade, there has been a noticeable reduction in the silver intensity of solar panels, as measured by the amount of silver required per kilowatt of solar panel capacity. This reduction signifies a trend toward more efficient utilization of silver in solar cells, but it is starting to reach its limits.
Silver's unmatched conductive properties make substitution difficult without a drop in energy efficiency. It is becoming more challenging to increase efficiency while reducing silver loadings. Silver boasts the lowest electrical resistance among all metals at standard temperatures, meaning substitutes cannot match its energy output per panel. Any savings achieved through substitution might be offset by the increased number of panels needed to match capacity. Technological advancements, not substitution, are the most likely way to reduce the need for silver.
The solar industry's demand for silver is tied to advancements in solar panel technology. In the past, silver paste served as a conductive layer on the front and back of silicon solar cells. However, evolving cell designs now use larger amounts of silver. Solar silver demand as a percent of total silver demand is forecast to rise from 5% in 2014 to approximately 14% in 2023 (see Figure 8). Using BloombergNEF's estimate of 12 tonnes of silver demand per gigawatt of solar capacity, silver demand for solar panels could increase by almost 169% by 2030 to roughly 273 million ounces, or about one-fifth of total silver demand based on trend projections.
Figure 8. Photovoltaics Dominate Silver Demand (2014-2023)
Source: Silver Institute (World Silver Survey 2023), BloombergNEF, IEA. Included for illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Seeking Silver Substitutes
Solar's rapid growth and the near-inelastic demand for silver present a substantial challenge to silver supply. Primary silver production has stagnated over the past decade, exacerbating the issue. Moreover, around 80% of silver supply is a by-product of lead, zinc, copper and gold production. The scarcity of primary silver mines and the reluctance of miners to invest in new base metal projects mean that higher silver prices are an insufficient catalyst to boost mine output. Consequently, a supply strain is anticipated, and we expect to see sizeable negative market balances for the next several years.
Silver paste represents a substantial portion of production costs in solar cells, approximately 10%.31 Manufacturers actively seek solutions to reduce silver usage and alternatives such as multi-busbar/zero-busbar designs and other metals like copper. However, the adoption rate for these alternative metals remains limited due to their relatively high production costs, technical hurdles and the inevitable loss of efficiency, given silver's unmatched conductivity. While these alternative metals hold promise, widespread adoption will likely occur after silver prices spike.
Expect Silver Demand to Keep Growing
Most forecasts of photovoltaic (PV) capacity point to significant growth in the solar market. Given silver's critical role in solar cell production, this escalating demand may exert considerable pressure on the silver market, dramatically causing demand to outpace primary supply. It is true that while the solar industry dominates the discussion, demand for silver is not thriving in all industrial sectors. The uncertain global economic outlook has negatively impacted the electronics and home appliance sectors and reduced silver's use in construction. However, overall demand for industrial silver continues to grow due to the relentless expansion of the renewable energy sector.
|Metric||9/29/2023||6/30/2023||Change||Mo % Chg||YTD % Chg||Analysis|
|Nasdaq Sprott Energy Transition Materials™ Index1||983.45||960.21||23.24||2.42%||5.31%||Despite the adverse market stresses, the energy transition complex closed higher due to a massive surge in spot uranium and uranium equities. For most of the year, uranium had firming fundamental support from the utilities contracting U3O8, building supply concerns, and LT growth projections being revised higher.|
|Nasdaq Sprott Lithium Miners™ Index2||840.04||916.16||(76.12)||(8.31)%||(8.92)%|
|North Shore Global Uranium Mining Index3||3,655.66||2,949.22||706.44||23.95%||50.63%|
|Solactive Global Copper Miners Index4||136.63||141.30||(4.68)||(3.31)%||4.86%|
|Nasdaq Sprott Nickel Miners™ Index5||756.80||789.03||(32.23)||(4.08)%||(16.84)%|
|Nasdaq Sprott Junior Copper Miners™ Index6||888.26||957.84||(69.58)||(7.26)%||3.48%|
|Nasdaq Sprott Junior Uranium Miners™ Index7||1,426.96||1,138.00||288.96||25.39%||39.03%|
|Lithium Carbonate Spot Price $/lb8||10.35||12.59||(2.24)||(17.79)%||(69.70)%||Federal Reserve hawkishness, weak Chinese economic data and electric vehicle sales weighed on commodity prices, excluding uranium.|
|U3O8 Uranium Spot Price $/lb9||73.38||60.63||12.75||21.03%||51.88%|
|LME Copper Spot Price $/lb10||3.73||3.81||(0.09)||(2.28)%||(1.82)%|
|LME Nickel Spot Price $/lb11||8.36||9.11||(0.75)||(8.20)%||(38.30)%|
|S&P 500 TR Index12||4,288.05||4,507.66||(219.61)||(4.87)%||11.68%||A complex mix of rising USD, yields, and oil prices have increased risk and drained systematic market liquidity. Concerns on debt issuance, deficits, fiscal policies, govt shutdowns, labor strife, etc. have all led to sharp spike in long-end yields.|
|BBG Commodity Index14||104.84||106.03||(1.19)||(1.12)%||(7.06)%|
|S&P Metals & Mining Select Industry TR Index15||2,687.99||2,661.89||26.10||0.98%||(5.35)%|
Source: Bloomberg and Sprott Asset Management LP. Data as of 9/29/2023.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Included for illustrative purposes only. You cannot invest directly in an index.
- For the latest standardized performance of the Sprott Energy Transition ETFs, please visit the individual website pages: SETM, LITP, URNM, URNJ, COPJ and NIKL. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
|1||The Nasdaq Sprott Energy Transition Materials™ Index (NSETM™) is designed to track the performance of a selection of global securities in the energy transition materials industry, and was co-developed by Nasdaq® and Sprott Asset Management LP.|
|2||The Nasdaq Sprott Lithium Miners™ Index (NSLITP™) is designed to track the performance of a selection of global securities in the lithium industry, including lithium producers, developers and explorers; the Index was co-developed by Nasdaq® and Sprott Asset Management LP.|
|3||The North Shore Global Uranium Mining Index (URNMX) is designed to track the performance of companies that devote at least 50% of their assets to the uranium mining industry, which may include mining, exploration, development and production of uranium, or holding physical uranium, owning uranium royalties or engaging in other non-mining activities that support the uranium mining industry.|
|4||The Solactive Global Copper Miners Index includes international companies active in exploration, mining and/or refining of copper. The index includes a minimum of 20 and a maximum of 40 members. The calculation is done in USD as a total return index. Index adjustments are carried out semi-annually.|
|5||Nasdaq Sprott Nickel Miners™ Index (NSNIKL™) is designed to track the performance of a selection of global securities in the nickel industry.|
|6||Nasdaq Sprott Junior Copper Miners™ Index (NSCOPJ™) is designed to track the performance of mid-, small- and micro-cap companies in copper-mining related businesses.|
|7||Nasdaq Sprott Junior Uranium Miners™ Index (NSURNJ™) is designed to track the performance of mid-, small- and micro-cap companies in uranium-mining related businesses.|
|8||The lithium carbonate spot price is measured by the China Lithium Carbonate 99.5% DEL. Source Bloomberg and Asian Metal Inc. Ticker L4CNMJGO AMTL Index. Data converted to pounds and to USD with Bloomberg FX Rates.|
|9||The U3O8 uranium spot price is measured by a proprietary composite of U3O8 spot prices from UxC, S&P Platts and Numerco.|
|10||The copper spot price is measured by the LME Copper Cash ($). Source Bloomberg ticker LMCADY. Data converted to pounds.|
|11||The nickel spot price is measured by the LME Nickel Cash ($). Source Bloomberg ticker LMNIDY. Data converted to pounds.|
|12||The S&P 500 or Standard & Poor's 500 Total Return Index is a market-capitalization-weighted index of the 500 largest U.S. publicly traded companies.|
|13||The U.S. Dollar Index (USDX, DXY) is an index of the value of the U.S. dollar relative to a basket of foreign currencies.|
|14||The Bloomberg Commodity Index (BCOM) is a broadly diversified commodity price index that tracks prices of futures contracts on physical commodities, and is designed to minimize concentration in any one commodity or sector. It currently has 23 commodity futures in six sectors.|
|15||The S&P Metals & Mining Select Industry Index comprises stocks in the S&P Total Market Index that are classified in the GICS metals & mining sub-industry.|
|17||Source: Bloomberg, “US Electric Vehicle Sales Reach Breakthrough Pace”, September 14, 2023|
|18||Source: Valor Business, “Sigma Lithium to evaluate acquisition offers”, September 14, 2023|
|19||Source: Reuters, “Lithium developer Liontown backs Albemarle's $4.3 billion bid”, September 4, 2023|
|20||Source: Reuters, “Lithium Americas in talks with US Energy Dept to secure over $1 billion loan, source says”, September 29, 2023|
|21||Source: Reuters, “U.S. to lend Pioneer $700 million for Nevada lithium mine”, January 13, 2023|
|22||Source: Reuters, “Albemarle to get $90 million grant from Pentagon for raising domestic lithium output”, September 12, 2023|
|23||Source: Copper Alliance, 2023.|
|24||Source: International Energy Agency (IEA), “Critical Minerals Market Review”, July 2023. Data shown for Net Zero Emissions Scenario.|
|25||Source: U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2023|
|26||Source: Reuters, “Top nickel producer Indonesia will not approve any new mining quotas for 2023”, September 19, 2023|
|27||Source: International Energy Agency, “Renewable Energy Market Update, Outlook for 2023 and 2024”, June 2023|
|28||Source: International Energy Agency, “Special Report on Solar PV Global Supply Chains”, August 2022|
|29||Source: International Energy Agency, “Special Report on Solar PV Global Supply Chains”, August 2022|
|30||Source: International Energy Agency, “Special Report on Solar PV Global Supply Chains”, August 2022|
|31||Source: PV Magazine, “Silver accounts for 10% of PV module costs”, March 4, 2021|
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