Interview: How a German startup aims to alleviate energy poverty with circular solar solutions

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In the upcoming July edition of pv magazine, out Monday, we’ve written about circular manufacturing as part of the latest UP initiative quarterly theme. It looks at what circular manufacturing is, why is it important, and how is it being applied in the solar and storage industries.

A focus is on Circusol – a four-year Horizon 2020 project under the European Commission – which is investigating circular business models for the solar power industry. One of its demonstrator projects is SunCrafter, a Berlin-based startup that aims to address the dual challenges of energy poverty and rising solar waste. Its CEO and co-founder, Lisa Wendzich, recently spoke to pv magazine about the concept, how it came about, and how SunCrafter is helping to push for a renewables-powered circular economy.

pv magazine: What is SunCrafter and how did the idea come about?

Lisa Wendzich: SunCrafter is aiming to alleviate energy poverty worldwide. We believe that the energy transition is rudimentary for a sustainable world in which everyone is able to live, without harming future generations’ lives. This is why we have created a zero-carbon energy generation technology. By applying our own IP protected remanufacturing process onto decommissioned (early-loss) solar modules, we are upcycling them into extremely robust plug-and-play solar generators. Through this approach, the lifespan of solar panels is drastically extended.

The idea originated when co-founder Bryce (CPO) and my father, Jürgen, were working together as solar technicians, contracted by insurance companies to run quality controls on industrial solar farms. As PV prices were plummeting, maintenance ceased to be economically viable for the contractors. Instead, replacing a whole set of PV panels was suddenly cheaper than repairing the one that was responsible for the cluster to underperform in outage. As it became obvious that the reckless discarding of panels would lead to a gigantic waste problem (an estimated 80 million tons in solar e-waste until 2050), the idea for upcycled off-grid solar generators emerged.

Circular manufacturing

pv magazine’s UP sustainability initiative is focusing on circular manufacturing in Q3 2020. Check out our feature page for more details.

How does the solar system work?

In terms of adaptation to climate change, our products are suitable for any affected area, as they can withstand floods, heat and storms. Thanks to the complexity-cutting technology, the solar panels need no technician or know-how for their installation over their entire lifetime – a critical factor in the development and aid sector. Our systems are electrically safe and certified, charge any 12V electrical device or battery and run for decades without the need for maintenance or repair.

Further, we are able to attach technical applications, such as Illumination or Wifi-Hotspots, to our systems, and make them suitable for a wide range of use-cases and business models. Currently we are focussing our resources on the use case ‘Smart Solar City’ with the purpose to power micro e-mobility and smart city applications sustainably with our CityHubs.

Do you design and/or manufacture the system in-house?

Our products are designed in-house but when it comes to certain prototypes, we work together with professional craftsmen and experts in industrial design. We are
happy to cooperate with the ecological and social company WerkHaus when it comes to design and prototyping with wood.

Which other partners do you work with?

SunCrafter is a H2020 Circucsol consortium partner, VDE member, SIB and EIT Climate KIC Alumni. We have also been selected to join the GreenTech Alliance. When it comes to sourcing second-life PV modules, we value Veolia Deutschland as a strategic partner. Regarding cutting-edge battery systems, we work together with BOS.

How did you become involved in the Circusol project?

We found the announcement that Circusol is looking for a new demonstrator via our online channels and applied for the project.

How is your work being used to demonstrate circular solar principles? What has been learned so far?

SunCrafter partners with Circusol as a demonstrator project for the e-mobility sector. Circusol is an Innovation Action project funded by the EU Commission. We display that upcycling of solar panels and batteries is economically viable with our off grid charging stations on the EUREF Campus Berlin, the University of Bochum and more locations to follow.

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One of the key learnings was how many different stakeholders need to be involved in cities, the mobility and the public sector for a single station to be erected. We quickly understood that in order to be fast in terms of ‘time till deployment’ we need to cut as much red tape as possible. The fact that our stations are very compact, run on DC and require no grid connection really saves us time and effort here.

The goal of the demonstrator is to bring our circular solar stations to where their visibility is highest – right on eye level in the streets of European cities. By powering micro e-mobility with circular renewable energy, we aim to make this promising new sector truly sustainable. Within Circusol we work towards the PoC for our charging stations – but also for more acceptance towards circular renewable energy systems in general.

There are concerns about using secondhand equipment like modules, like efficiency, quality, reliability, etc. What is your argument to counter these barriers? What must be done to encourage larger scale participation in this new business?
 
Creating an off grid clean energy source from existing materials offers two significant advantages: Firstly, in most off-grid use cases it is ‘access’ over ‘efficiency’, meaning that our modules go, mainly in small numbers, to where energy would otherwise not have been available in the first place. Our research shows that the module prices for ‘rehabilitated’ modules – modules we test and recertify – are significantly lower than those of new modules. This advantage gets lost in large PV applications as there the quality and efficiency standards are much higher. But in small and stand-alone off-grid applications second life modules offer significant cost savings.

Secondly, we know that the right mix of reuse and recycle when it comes to decommissioned panels, is not only cost optimal but also offers large environmental gains as the majority of environmental cost – like emissions or raw material use – in the solar sector is caused by panel production and panel recycling. In some places, panels are even still discarded in landfills or eve incinerated, two highly problematic ways to deal with the waste. I feel that this deserves more public attention and that on EU level there should be policies incentivising the use of second life modules.

Lastly, I want to say that I strongly advocate for a minimum level of quality control when it comes to panel reuse. While environmentally and economically it can be very interesting to ship decommissioned modules from more mature markets like Germany to less mature ones like some Eastern European or African markets, it can’t be a thing that just happens without ensuring the quality and functionality of these modules. In the end, we don’t just want the waste problem shifted to a less regulated market, right?

At SunCrafter our value proposition to the end-customer is that we offer lower cost systems but at high quality standards. Each panel undergoes an extensive testing process. Modules that would normally not qualify for reuse can often be reconfigured into our extremely robust ‘EasyPanels’, perfect for reliable energy generation in energy poor regions in the global south.

Is there a viable financial model for such companies? Please explain. What other opportunities does a company like SunCrafter offer?

SunCrafter is a technology company with a hybrid business model and strong focus on circular sourcing. The business unit “Green Events” serves as an economically viable catalyst whose excess revenue co-finances our humanitarian activities in the segment “Rural Access to Energy”. Therefore, we currently rent out our solar based off-grid charging station “SolarHub” to several customer groups on outdoor events and venues topower small devices such as phones or WiFi hotspots in a sustainable way. The “CityHub” – a prototype currently tested at Bochum University – is tailored to charge micro mobility vehicles and power other smart city features such as environmental sensors. Both products generate revenue through their sale or rental price, service contracts, energy sales and advertising space, which creates an attractive profit margin.

SunCrafter wants to generate a steady revenue stream in the events sector, while consistently working on transferring our products into the markets where they really make a difference. We chose this approach in order to enter the market fast and test the product with a low risk, while making first revenues and gaining independence from large external investments. Every business unit is supposed to catalyse SunCrafter’s business development as a whole. Our goal is to unlock circular solar business models to make energy access available wherever needed.

What kind of a lifespan do you expect from a second-life system?
 
That depends on many factors such as the current service time of the system, the overall quality, if repairs such as diode exchanges e.g. were performed or not. We channel different modules according to different potential use-cases. A module in a high-voltage reuse case needs to fulfill much higher quality criteria than a module which will go into off grid standalone use of course. The more usable years left, the higher the economical advantage of course.

Why do so many functional solar panels go to waste and how can this be addressed?

Since research and development of PV modules has intensified in the last four decades, prices for PV modules have decreased drastically. Due to this price discrepancy and technological improvement, more power is generated using less space, it simply makes economic sense to exchange modules before their technological end-of-life. However, these “early-loss” modules can easily generate renewable electricity for another 10+ years. Within the meaning of the EU law on waste, we are asked to “reduce, reuse, recycle”, so before we let these functional modules be recycled, i.e. extracting their single valuable components, such as aluminum frames, we should look for sensible ways to rehabilitate the resource for reuse. For a successful reuse scheme certain mechanisms need to be developed. First, we need regulation and standards on EU level to ensure the quality and lawfulness of modules going on the second-hand market.

Next, we need to establish processes, which guarantee that the modules which are decommissioned from a plant, are safely transported to collection points (maybe a recycling plant), where they can be tested for their functionality, rehabilitated and recertified.

Then we need effective communication channels, in order to educate the public on the problem and reasonableness of reusing solar modules, so we can create strong markets. For this to come together, we need institutional backing, as well as the involvement of stakeholders ranging from manufacturers, distributors, solar plant owners and operators and recycling companies.

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