Forecasts for the expansion of the solar industry are both a cause for celebration and concern – particularly concerning waste, as modules come to end-of-life. IRENA forecasts that global installed capacity will grow from 840 GW by 2030 to 8,519 GW in 2050, an expansion which will require a greater awareness of their end-of-life management.
To preserve the sustainable image of the solar sector, most industry and research experts envision a circular economy approach, where discarded PV panels are either reused after their first use or the contained materials recycled. This vision is fueled by EU regulations that point in the same direction, aiming to save large amounts of PV waste from incineration and landfill while making the European PV industry more resilient and independent from foreign suppliers, especially from the Asian market.
From a circular economy perspective, PV modules have long product life cycles compared to other electronic products within the scope of the WEEE legislation, which is naturally beneficial to relieve the pressure on the climate and conserve resources. However, looking at reuse and recycling, the industry is blocked since stakeholders lack relevant information about end-of-life panels.
Product- and performance-related information is not sufficiently exchanged within the value chain leading to little or no knowledge about the origin of the materials used, their composition or environmental impact, and no data about the usage period or reasons for the disassembly of a PV system are provided. When modules finally reach the recycling company, it is often not known whether the products are only used but still functional, or already defective. This information gap undermines the potential for establishing a controlled European reuse market and the most efficient use of PV products from a circular economy perspective.
Move to low emissions
Simultaneously, end-customer requirements and country-specific regulations increasingly lead to a race among PV panel producers to prove a low carbon footprint of their products. Here, European production benefits from green energy, social responsibility standards, and short-routed logistics compared to production in Asia. European module producers are increasingly collecting CO2 footprint-related information from their component and material suppliers to satisfy this demand. Therefore, various life cycle assessments (LCA) are commissioned and carried out internally or by numerous LCA companies, but without any comparison or third-party validation.
In addition to this potpourri of non-standardized LCA methods, which lack a common language and practice, the situation is not satisfactory in the fact that only fragments of the entire value chain are considered in each LCA, without taking up- or downstream operations within the supply chain into account. As a result, the information obtained cannot be used to achieve circular economy objectives in the area of reuse and recycle.
Research conducted by the Bern University of Applied Sciences has shown that data is currently shared internally in companies and sometimes between a selection of trusted actors in the value chain, for example, with regard to LCA procedures. However, various stakeholders show interest in an information exchange that goes beyond this current stage creating shared data ecosystems, where partners can benefit from aggregated data from previously inaccessible parts of the supply chain.
Information about the materials and product properties regarding sustainability of solar panels could support customers in their procurement activities, enable more efficient recycling processes, or simplify LCAs, while aggregated performance data could facilitate measures to extend the product lifetime by a second use. In addition, stakeholders participating in shared data ecosystems are expected to realize new business models through improved data valorization.
To display the potential of data sharing ecosystems within the PV industry, we are currently developing a database prototype in the EU-horizon project CIRCUSOL. The database contains publicly available data which comprises information about multiple PV module types and their properties, as well as usage details of PV systems in the field, such as installation date and location with a major focus on the use case of Switzerland.
Additional data is collected through the utilization of the data in various business model pilots. In the long-term, the database should act as a hub providing aggregated and non-sensitive information to participating stakeholders in exchange for disclosing their data.
Organizations specializing on conducting LCAs and sustainability certifications show interest in using the data to benchmark their results. With the increased pressure for sustainable labels, especially about carbon footprint, these companies could use the data hub to collect, store, and analyze data from PV panel producers and their suppliers while allowing researchers to further use the gathered data to improve and standardize the benchmark.
Simultaneously, among downstream solar stakeholders, interest has increased in efficiently estimating the best suitable end-of-life activity through the database. Here, information already available on incoming PV modules can enable a faster identification of the remaining module performance based on the comparison to datasheet-related information to qualify the secondary market potential. The resulting outcomes would again enable the database to grow not only in the amount, but also in the value of the provided data.
There is a need to overcome the current restraint and skepticism regarding data sharing among PV industry stakeholders through the realization of first pilot business model applications, where the value potential is shown. The database prototype developed by the Bern University of Applied Science during CIRCUSOL aims to be the starting point to accelerate this mind shift to a more circular PV-industry nurtured by the great potential of the advancing digitalization.
About the authors
Roger Nyffenegger works as doctoral researcher at the Bern University of Applied Sciences and joined the Horizon 2020 project CIRCUSOL in 2021. He holds a double master degree in Business Innovation and International Management from the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland and HEC Paris, France. He is working on his PhD in “Business Model experimentation for the Circular Economy”.
Ässia Boukhatmi works as doctoral researcher at the Bern University of Applied Sciences and joined the Horizon 2020 project CIRCUSOL in 2021. She holds a master degree in industrial engineering with focus on renewable energies at the Technical University of Applied Sciences and the School of Economics and Law in Berlin, Germany. She is working on the PhD topic “Technology and Data management for the Circular Economy”.
Stefan Grösser works at the Bern University of Applied Sciences since 2011 and at the Department of Engineering and Computer Science since 2016. He is Dean of the Division on Industrial Engineering and Management Science and heads the research group “Strategy, Technology and Innovation Management”. He holds a PhD in Management from the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. He is involved in European and national research projects to address socio-technical challenges in the energy industry as well as health care.
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