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Posted May 16, 2022

The circular economy and Photovoltaics

Swansea UniversityIn our effort to tackle climate change quickly, it is important to ensure that renewable energy itself is also sustainable.

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By 2050, there will be over 60 million tonnes of waste Si-PV that must be dealt with.

Renewable energy technologies

The development and deployment of sustainable renewable energy technologies is vital to our transition away from fossil fuel energy sources towards a clean-energy future. However, although viewed as ‘green’, there are significant environmental impacts associated with renewable energy technologies. In our effort to tackle climate change quickly, it is important to ensure that renewable energy itself is also sustainable.

Recycling solar panels

Swansea UniversityThe cost of photovoltaic (PV) technology has plummeted with silicon PV (Si-PV) now cost-competitive, and in some locations cheaper than fossil fuels, resulting in dramatic growth in their use. The average lifespan of a Si-PV module is around 25 years, but when solar panels no longer work, they are not currently easy to recycle. By 2050, there will be over 60 million tons of waste Si-PV that must be dealt with. We could decouple the economic growth of the sector from the consumption of primary raw materials so we can deploy increasing volumes of PV technology without the need to dig materials out of the Earth. Currently, PV supplies roughly 3% of global electricity, but this is already dependent on high quantities of critical materials (such as indium and tellurium). These materials are also used in other important renewable and/or energy efficient technologies – we need to avoid renewable technologies competing for materials, as this will limit our ability to respond to climate change.

Keep the circular economy in mind

Widespread deployment of PV technologies must come with transition to a ‘circular economy’, in which materials are kept in service for as long as possible at the highest value possible. For Si-PV, this obviously needs to be done retrospectively but for emerging technologies, like the ones we work on at Swansea University, we believe this is an opportunity to develop and design the next generation of photovoltaic technology with circular economy and end-of-life in mind from the start.

Next generation of sustainable energy

Our SPECIFIC project aims to hasten the commercialisation of the next generation of sustainable renewable energy technology. We are working on alternatives to traditional Si-PV; investigating the use of low-cost, printable, earth-abundant materials. One challenge that we are trying to address is the eco-design of devices so that they can be remanufactured into new devices at the end of life using as much of the original device as possible. This will minimise the use of critical materials and ensure the economic growth is not intrinsically linked to carbon emissions. We aim to deliver maximum benefit to society and develop truly ‘sustainable’ renewable energy technology.

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