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Resilient solar - a circular economy for solar photovoltaics

The challenge

The uptake of solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is often lauded as a major step toward a more sustainable future. While solar power may provide a great sustainable alternative energy source, what about the impacts of the hardware required to generate this power? This research project looks at how we might employ circular economy business models to make sure the solar revolution is truly a sustainable one.

In this article

  • Estimated waste loads for Australian solar photovoltaic sector, which turns sunlight into energy
  • How the principles of the circular economy can be applied to the photovoltaic industry
  • Circular business models and enablers to shift us from a linear to a circular economy

Solar photovoltaic technology (PV) turns sunlight into electricity via solar panels. It's also playing a pivotal role in Australia’s transition to a renewable and sustainable economy. PV, along with wind power, is already cheaper than new coal and gas plants, making it a more attractive energy investment. In 2018, Australia reached 10 Gigawatts of installed capacity largely through small-scale installations. However, we have a chequered history when it comes to managing energy sources at scale. As we transition to renewable energy sources how can we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past?

The Australian industry life-cycle for PV currently follows a traditional take-make-dispose model. By 2040, up to 450,000 tonnes of PV waste will have been created from silicon panels to lithium-ion batteries.

When it comes to end-of-life management, solar retailers, developers or local governments are currently left with the waste including frames, junction boxes, diodes, plugs, and solar cells. Emily Gentilini and Michael Salt, two engineers in our Canberra and Melbourne office, wanted to make sure we were considering end-of-waste was thought about using circular economy principles or reuse, reduce, recycle and recover.

‘At the moment, there is no incentive for Australian solar panel sellers to engage, because there is no commercial imperative for them’ - Michael Salt

This kind of circular thinking is becoming a global trend. In 2018, China and the European Union signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Circular Economy Cooperation. The benefits aren't only ecological - by 2030 the European union is anticipating a €1.8 trillion boost to the economy.

Photo © Antonio Garcia

The World Economic Forum 'Towards the Circular Economy' report estimates the circular economy could be worth $1 trillion worldwide and $26 billion in Australia by 2025. And, this potential economic boom would come hand-in-hand with more jobs and less landfill. However, as Senior Consultant and Energy Adviser Michael Salt noted, this circular approach has not yet hit the world of PV's.

 

‘We decided to explore ways that circular economy principles could be embraced by the industry’ - Emily Gentilini

To unlock the opportunities and incentives, Michael and Emily looked at the Australian PV industry through a circular economy lens. Informed by our 'First Steps Towards a Circular Built Environment' report, they assessed a range of Circular Business Models (CBMs) under three lifecycle categories:

While there are distinct CBMs within each category, the CBMs are intended to co-exist, co-operate and co-evolve to create a circular ecosystem that fits within the current value chain.

To achieve sustainable outcomes a circular model operates at the micro-level (products, companies, consumers), meso-level (eco-industrial parks) and macro-level (city, region, nation and beyond). Making circular PV a reality means policy makers, businesses and investors will need to come together to implement a range of enablers.

Adding loops within the current value chain for solar PV in Australia to reduce inputs and outputs

It takes 1.5 to 2.7 years for the energy used to produce silicon-based panels to be surpassed by the energy generated by them. The team’s Product and Process Design CBM looks at how to narrow this time gap with improved asset manufacture, maintenance and refurbishment. The building industry is already exploring opportunities in this area (see our 'Circular Cities: Reduce. Reuse. Rebuild' article), and it is a logical next step for solar.

The Sharing Platforms CBM would enable more people to benefit from the same number of panels.  A centrally shared and controlled PV and battery system, owned collectively by apartment owners and solar companies could coordinate, deploy and monitor the energy much like a traditional power plant at small scale. Not only would this provide residents with renewable resources it would reduce strain on the electricity network.

Following a Refurbish and Maintenance CBM, panels returned to a manufacturer under warranty would be repaired, reused or recycled. The potential for reuse of parts is high, with estimates that recovering components from 1,000 used panels could produce around 400 new PV panels. It’s a model that is gaining traction, with a $17 billion secondary-use mobile device market.

The researchers acknowledge implementing CBMs into the Australian marketplace will cause some disruption. At the same time, if we fail to transition, solar panels will become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. If we succeed, key resources will be saved while a new sustainable business model rolls out to support our consumption of renewable energy throughout a full life cycle.

Findings

  • By 2040, up to 450,000 tonnes of PV waste will hit Australia’s waste streams.
  • Applying principles of the circular economy could divert most of the PV waste.
  • A range of key enablers can be used to develop circular business models for the Australian solar PV industry.

Lead Arup Researcher

Michael Salt
Michael is a senior Energy consultant with the Advisory, Planning & Design group in our Melbourne office

Ask Michael about:

  • Renewable energy, bioenergy and energy economics
  • The Internet of Things (IoT)

LEAD Partner RESEARCHER

Research TEAM

Emily
Gentilini
Graduate Materials Engineer, Canberra Office
Joyanne
Manning
Principal, Resource and Waste leader, Brisbane office
Giles
Prowse
Senior Environmental Engineer, Brisbane office
Chiara
Catgiu
(Former) Graduate Materials Engineer, Milan office – now external consultant
Carol
Lemmens
Director, Amsterdam Office

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