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Ever since the start of the Industrial Revolution, humans have been altering the planet and our environment to better fit our needs. In the last decade, this development has been accelerating at a much faster pace and on a larger scale, now reaching unprecedented levels of impact. It is not a secret that we have not always done so in good stewardship, while being conscious of the planet and its resources, which has led to increasingly alarming circumstances in many industries. Solar may well be next. So, moving forward, how can we change this narrative to a brighter and more sustainable future with less waste?
Irrespective of industry type, our current economic model is a linear one, composed of the three pillars of take, make and waste. In order to improve on this model, we have to take a better look at all three pillars individually to design for a more robust and resourceful process. Simply put, the answer to the question at hand is a circular economy, which is not only about circularizing the process but also systematically shortening the line of that process, requiring a fundamental shift in the way we operate. To peer under what circularity translates to in the case of solar assets and establish why it is important, we spoke with two thought leaders addressing the challenges related to the resurrection and afterlife of solar panels: Imco Goudswaard and Dr. Frank Lenzmann.
Technically speaking, the lifetime of a solar PV plant can reach up to 30 years and - given where the solar industry currently stands, particularly in Europe - now is the time to start gearing up for the glut of solar waste to be produced in the next 5-10 years and beyond. Dr. Frank Lenzmann also highlighted that, in addition to the technical lifetime of a system, we have to also take the economic lifetime of the system into account. Certain PV installations are engineered and put into the field within a specific economic contract, which may end after 10 or 15 years and, whether they are operational or not, the panels will be dismantled. Undoubtedly, solar has been a shining success story hitting home runs across the board. For this story to continue, the PV industry is certainly advised to weave the essential circularity strategies into the fabric of the processes, through which we design, maintain and recycle solar panels.
In the case of solar PV, circularity can manifest in a number of ways. For instance, materials that are highly economically important in a solar panel, i.e. silicon as well as silver, which still typically end up on landfills or waste incineration plants, can be recycled or reused in a PV panel or even other products. Generally speaking, the path to solar asset circularity entails three stations: design, operations and end-of-life. Starting at the design and manufacturing stage, circularity can be achieved by two different routes. One is that we ought to use better and non-hazardous materials when constructing solar panels. Another aspect is the concept of reduction, so producing the same panel whilst deploying a lesser amount of materials, which the industry has been already circling around for cost-efficiency purposes.
During the operational phase of the plant, extending the life cycle of the solar system can also be a driver for improved circularity through retrofitting and repowering opportunities. DSM has successfully developed a retrofit Anti-Reflective (AR) coating, enhancing performance by 2-3%, which can also help prolong the duration that the coated panels are operational for. The existing technology and methodology to recycle solar panels are neither economically viable, nor sophisticated enough to cope with how the materials mentioned earlier are woven and glued within the panel. Thus, we need better processes with respect to recycling and dismantling solar panels and, to bring it full circle, we need to choose materials that can be recovered and recycled on a bigger scale than what is currently happening.
All in all, the path to solar asset circularity is a multi-stakeholder and integrated process that involves everyone and everything in the entire value chain. Shifting the system necessitates new ways of thinking and requires all the links of the chain to come together. To further learn about solar asset circularity and building a blueprint that supports both circularity and profitability, join the Future Grid Lab on Renewable Energy Asset Circularity, happening on May 24, in cosmopolitan Rotterdam.