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Greener Energy: bringing the circular economy to solar energy

Nathan Quinn permanent-hires, Renewable Energy, Built Environment...

The past few years have brought many landmarks for renewable energy, whether it is the number of days a country goes without fossil fuels, a new record height for a wind turbine or some new cost efficiency. Of these it is potentially the cost dynamic that his been behind the success of renewable energy, after all when something is both cheap and good its logic becomes undeniable. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that in 2019 half of all solar and wind installations undercut fossil fuels on price, whilst since 2010 the cost of solar photovoltaic projects has fallen by 82%.

However, there is a need to move beyond price, in truth there is no such thing as a sustainable material and solar panels contain both valuable materials and potential hazards. A report from Arup, an engineering consultancy, at the start of the year focused solely on Australia anticipated between 300,000 and 450,000 tonnes of panel waste by 2040. This article aims to look at how solar panels are being better integrated into the circular economy and will look at how circular design, use and recovery is being applied to solar panels in different regions.

Asia

Solar panel usage is growing fastest in Asia. No single country in the world has adequate recycling laws when it comes to solar panels, however it is Asia where the impact of this situation is likely to be felt first. There is no complacency on the issue of solar waste, however. A good example is the response of South Korea. Following the Korea Environment Institute's 2018 statistic report – the last two years have seen a combined public and private effort to promote circular concepts into the solar industry. The Korea Institute of Energy Research (KIER) has invested a lot of effort in how to recycle panels, focusing on chemical separation and the retrieval of materials for future solar panel manufacture. Similar results have also been achieved in a public-private research project based at the Chungbuk Technopark. In the private sector, a notable success story has been Line Tech Solar, a firm based in Hwaseong – they work on deconstructing and then “repowering” solar panels – typically extending the panel life by 10 years and still maintaining an efficiency level over 20%.

Australia

As mentioned earlier, solar waste is a significant and visible topic in Australia. With a potential 18GW of solar in the country by the end of 2020, Australia has the makings of a large solar waste challenge. Although there has been some government engagement – most momentum is coming from the private sector. A key player in the Australia PV waste sector is Reclaim PV Recycling that has already formed partnerships with major players such as Canadian Solar, Suntech, Sunpower, Yingli and QCells. The firm’s emphasis is on recovering components for reuse, with a focus on refining existing components rather than repurposing them. The rapid rise of a firm like Reclaim augers well for the PV recycling sector – it may encourage manufacturers to embed future recycling capability into their panel designs and motivate others to set up similar firms in Australia and overseas.

Europe

Europe imports a significant proportion of its solar panels from Asia. There is an increasing sense that European countries are keen to regain some form of initiative for its local solar PV manufacturing base. A leading exponent of this move has been France, with President Macron making significant pledges in 2019 to aid solar innovation. The EU has a research programme called Horizon 2020, the programme includes three solar PV schemes; Circusol, Cabriss and Super PV. A brief overview of each scheme is listed below:

  • Circusol – launched in 2018, this scheme has five demonstration projects that focuses on how circular economy principles can be applied to solar PV.
  • Cabriss – is the acronym for a “circular economy based on recycled, reused and recovered indium, silicon and silver materials for photovoltaic and other applications”. The scheme started in 2015 and looks at co0st effective manufacturing and materials use by design.
  • Super PV – is a scheme started in 2018 that focuses on technological and process innovations. As a project it is very much focused on giving European solar PV a competitive advantage in terms of sophistication and efficiency.

USA

In the US, the main organisation looking to lead on circular solar technology is the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The lab recently published a report in Nature Energy focused on the solar recycling sector. The principal issue at the present is a lack of a recycling framework for solar PV in the US, whether in terms of policy, actual recyclers, and regulation at state level. In fact, only one state, Washington, which is home to a photovoltaic module stewardship and takeback program seems to have the issue on their agenda. A good microcosm of the issue is that the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) itself lacks any single recycling partner facility that could handle a whole solar panel, instead its partners are capable of handling different parts of a solar panel each. However, the recent report should help to drive discussion of how the US tackles the issue.

The NREL itself has three objectives; ensure that the cost of recycling is better than the cost of disposal, move toward a sustainable circular supply of materials and generally improving the environmental impact of solar (especially in relation to the extraction of virgin metals). An important recommendation of the report is that future panel design.

Concluding thoughts

It is very easy to approach the topic of solar waste from the wrong angle. The rise of solar PV has occurred as part of a global pivot away from fossil fuels and toward a more sustainable future. Like many innovative concepts, the sheer newness of solar as a technology relatively speaking has combined with its success to create a new challenge. It is important to note that it is estimated that 90% of all solar capacity has been installed in the last 20 years. Solar faces a coming of age challenge, it has proven itself to better than coal as an example, now it needs to compete with itself to become more sustainable and efficient. The incentives are there to make solar a champion of the circular economy – there is an economic incentive for the private sector, renewable energy technology recycling must be one of the fastest growing sectors of the next 20 years and there is also an incentive for governments because eliminating landfill usage is already a major priority.