EPJ PV Highlight - Prioritizing Circular Economy strategies for sustainable PV deployment at the TW scale

Representing the HEOM mathematical structure

Prioritizing Circular Economy strategies for sustainable PV deployment at the TW scale

The material demand and eventual end of life management associated with multi-TW scale photovoltaic (PV) deployment has elicited significant consternation in research communities and the public discourse. Circular Economy and it's associated R-Actions (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) have been proposed to mitigate end of life management and material sourcing concerns. However, Circular Economy studies and metrics typically focus on a single product scale, heavily emphasize recycling, and only consider mass, excluding energy flows – a major oversight for an energy generating technology. Leveraging the open-source PV in Circular Economy (PV ICE) tool, the article quantifies the mass and energy implications of different R-Actions and proposed sustainable PV module designs in the context of achieving energy transition deployment goals (75 TW in 2050, 86 TW in 2100). Specifically, 13 technology-based module scenarios are established varying module efficiency, lifetime, and material circularity. These 13 module scenarios are evaluated across 6 metrics; total deployment including replacements, virgin material demand, lifecycle wastes, energy demands, net energy generated, and energy balance.

The authors find that increasing module efficiency, a “Reduce” action, can reduce near-term material demands up to 30% and improve energy metrics by up to 9%. Material circularity, via “Remanufacturing” or “Recycling”, can minimize lifecycle wastes and reduce material demands at the cost of higher energy demands. Increasing module lifetime, such as improving reliability and implementing reuse strategies, both a “Reduce” and “Reuse” action, is effective at reducing both material (>10%) and energy demands (24%). Lifetime improvement also supports both efficiency and material circularity improvements while achieving multi-TW scale deployment, preserving the benefits of a higher efficiency and providing a “grace period” to scale-up recycling processes and infrastructure. Conversely, recycling alone is insufficient to compensate for a low quality, low efficiency module. Uniquely, lifetime improvements maximize benefits and minimize the harms across all six metrics. Therefore, it is recommended that in addition to whatever module design aspect is prioritized, lifetime is paramount.

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