The consumer-led power revolution driving a rapid uptake of rooftop solar panels and lithium-ion batteries to store electricity is creating new uses for metals which have long languished in the doldrums.
Silver and lithium have so far been the star performers with both experiencing big price jumps in recent months.
Peter Strachan from StockAnalysis said the solar industry was providing a modern-day large-scale industrial use for the metals.
“They print the circuitry for photovoltaic cells using nanoparticles of silver, it is a very good conductor,” Mr Strachan said.
“It’s used in tiny, tiny amounts, nanoparticles.
“When you consider the millions and millions of photovoltaic cells that are being made around the world, there’s obviously a big demand for silver.”
The demand for solar technology has trebled lithium prices in the past two years, while silver has also had a good run, jumping 46 per cent since January.
The precious metal, often dubbed “the poor man’s gold” has far outperformed its flashier cousin this year.
Mr Strachan said demand for silver in this new application was far outstripping its use in the past.
“It’s had a bit of a quiet period, certainly the industrial use that used to be in the photo industry has basically died, so silver is now much more of a store of value,” he said.
“Those uses were growing at 1 or 2 per cent per annum, the use in lithium-ion batteries is growing at 7, 8, 12 per cent per annum.”
He said solar technologies were also driving demand for other metals too.
“There’s graphite, manganese, cobalt, so I suspect that the prices of all of these metals, like silver, will begin to rise as we move into 2017 and beyond,” Mr Strachan said.
Positive outlook for miners
The price rise is a boon for WA miners like Macphersons Resources, which has a silver deposit just eight kilometres from Kalgoorlie.
Chairman Ashok Parehk said the price rise provided the Nimbus mine with enough stimulus to get off the ground.
“Profitability at the moment is very good at $25, it’s gone from $15 to $27 in a very short period of time,” Mr Parehk said.
“At the moment, we are going through all the metallurgical processes to make sure the metallurgy’s alright, if that’s the case then we will fast track.
“There aren’t many silver mines out there as far as I’m aware, Macphersons Resources is the only silver operation in Western Australia besides silver as a by-product from Golden Grove and Jaguar Bentley deposit.”
But there could be a downside, analysts warned if demand pushed prices up too much, manufacturers would look to cheaper substitutes.
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