Technological watch

Circular economy priorities for photovoltaics in the energy transition

AbstractAmong the many ambitious decarbonization goals globally, the US intends grid decarbonization by 2035, requiring 1 TW of installed photovoltaics (PV), up from ~110 GW in 2021. This unprecedented global scale-up will stress existing PV supply chains with increased material and energy demands. By 2050, 1.75 TW of PV in the US cumulatively demands 97 million metric tonnes of virgin material and creates 8 million metric tonnes of life cycle waste. This analysis leverages the PV in Circular Economy tool (PV ICE) to evaluate two circular economy approaches, lifetime extension and closed-loop recycling, on their ability to reduce virgin material demands and life cycle wastes while meeting capacity goals. Modules with 50-year lifetimes can reduce virgin material demand by 3% through reduced deployment. Modules with 15-year lifetimes require an additional 1.2 TW of replacement modules to maintain capacity, increasing virgin material demand and waste unless >90% of module mass is closed-loop recycled. Currently, no PV technology is more than 90% closed-loop recycled. Glass, the majority of mass in all PV technologies and an energy intensive component with a problematic supply chain, should be targeted for a circular redesign. Our work contributes data-backed insights prioritizing circular PV strategies for a sustainable energy transition.

Publication date: 09/09/2022

Author: Heather Mirletz,  Silvana Ovaitt,  Seetharaman Sridhar,  Teresa M. Barnes




This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 1914.