That business as usual is no longer an option is a statement on the lips of many. Covid-19 is currently placing this issue front and center. However, for those taking the scientific evidence on climate change seriously, it is not a new sentiment.
But what’s the alternative? When following the recent conversations taking place globally between scientists, politicians, business leaders and NGOs, it is clear that systemic thinking and sustainable business models, as a part of a wider circular economy, present a compelling solution to fostering post-coronavirus growth.
Moving away from the traditional linear economic models of “take, make, dispose,” the Ellen McArthur Foundation, established in 2010, describes a circular economy as being “based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.”
The concept first originated in 1982 and has since gained traction, with the likes of Michael Braungart and William McDonough embedding it into their Cradle-to-Cradle manifesto, published in 2002. The Chinese government also entered into a number of global cooperation agreements surrounding the circular economy in 2018.
Labeled the John Maynard Keynes of the 21st century by The Guardian’s George Monbiot, Oxford academic Kate Raworth released her pioneering book, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, in 2017. It designates a new, circular economic model, outlined in the chart above. Amsterdam was the first city to announce its intention to employ the model, the premise of which is based on taking humanity’s long-term goals and seeking the economic thinking that will enable their achievement. The key, Raworth argues, is regenerative design, where success is decoupled from GDP. “Mainstream economics views endless economic growth as a must, but nothing in nature grows forever … what we need are economies that make us thrive.” This word “thrive” is critical, because a badly designed strategy, however well intentioned, can reap unintended consequences.
Most recently, the European Union has unveiled its plans for a circular economy as part of its proposed Green Deal. Electronics are one of its main focuses.
Trace these conversations, and business leaders can see the areas where policy and legislation are likely to take shape, and where investors will begin to redirect their finances. Recognizing these trends and understanding how to integrate them into business strategies and models now can help future proof businesses.
This is essential in a world economy characterized by increasing volatility – political, pandemical or phenomenal. Swaths of literature and case studies confirm that addressing social and environmental challenges can reap quantifiable operational and strategic benefits, while securing long-term business stability. In short, effective transitioning makes sense for every business.
What it means for PV
The solar industry plays a huge role in the required energy transition. Setting it apart from the traditional energy industries is essential, particularly as it has a leading role in the race to zero-carbon economies.
In the past two years, conversations in the solar industry have also arisen around the circular economy. The Circusol project, which stands for Circular Business Models for the Solar Power Industry, presents a compelling example of this. The project is an Innovation Action project funded by the Horizon 2020 program of the European Commission. It seeks not only to unearth new business opportunities, like solar as a service, but also to look at the redesign and recyclability of solar products, among other issues (see pp. 58-60).
Germany’s Fraunhofer ISE is also running a Green Manufacturing Consortium – a publicly funded project comprising 20 industrial partners, four institutes and two industry associations. The objective is to develop an “economic-ecological evaluation methodology for a sustainable future factory for the production of innovative PV modules,” Jochen Rentsch, Head of Department Production Technology Division Photovoltaics at Fraunhofer ISE, told pv magazine: “One of its focuses is a break even analysis for circular economy approaches within PV value chains.”
Related projects are stepping up in other areas, like the AI Driven Chemical Design of Materials for Sustainable PV Manufacturing in the United States. A collaboration between the Collaboratory for a Regenerative Economy (CORE), Niagara Share, Clean Production Action, and the Department of Materials Design and Innovation at the University of Buffalo, the participants explain the goal is to use AI and machine learning tools to accelerate the material discovery phase for lead-free perovskite solar cells and perfluorooctanoic-acid-free encapsulants. This research includes creating new chemical signatures for assessing material toxicity and quantifying the environmental impact and toxicity at different parts of the manufacturing process. These partners are also working closely with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which is revamping its Solar Scorecard to include criteria on the circular economy.
On the recycling front, there is innovative research going on as we start to see PV waste streams ramp up. For instance, a cross collaboration between Australia and Belgium is looking at how to extract solar-grade silicon from cells to be reused in batteries, thus creating new business models and revenue streams (see Opinion & Analysis by PhD student Mahdokht Shaibani from Monash University on www.pv-magazine.com).
In the past two years, sustainable certification has also become a topic discussed more widely in PV, including at the pv magazine Roundtable on June 10 (see pp. 40-43). Already the first specific sustainability standard for modules and inverters has been created and a number of other established ecolabels, like the Green Electronics Council and the EU Ecolabel, are looking to add solar products to their existing registries. While the effectiveness of voluntary standards can be debated, they are often a precursor to legislation.
All of these separate issues are already alive in the solar industry and play into the larger context of a circular economy.
pv magazine’s next Quarterly UP theme will bring together and critically investigate such work and identify ways PV companies can start effectively integrating these principles of whole systems thinking and circularity into existing business models. If you want to find out more, or join our UP initiative, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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