Reinventing solar

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You mention the vital role solar needs to play in our energy transition in your book, The Upcycle, coauthored with U.S. architect William McDonough. However, you don’t mention its design. What are your thoughts on the industry?

No other industry has so much potential for the future of the planet. But the business needs to be organized differently. Under existing conditions, chemical compositions of solar panels are a nightmare for the environment and for human health.

We solve the energy problem by causing a much bigger material problem. There is a whole series of rare problematic materials, like UV stabilizing antioxidants, plasticizers, as well as rare and toxic metals like lead, chromium, selenium, mercury, indium, gallium, germanium, and nickel.

What needs to be done?

I am talking about reinventing the whole photovoltaics business by a different design. That means no longer selling the materials or equipment, but selling the service of using it. Nobody needs a solar panel. All you need is photons. Once you buy a solar panel, you basically become an owner of toxic waste. Also, when you sell solar panels, you have to take the cheapest materials, not the best ones. They should be a service. If you are just selling 25 years of harvesting photons, then you can use the best materials. You could make solar panels that could be disassembled much more easily, which is not the case at all right now, and reuse your very good materials.

How should a manufacturer finance this?

Basically, the PV system, the solar panels and equipment, could become material banks, when you are no longer selling decommissioned systems to high tech waste management as hazardous waste. We think that manufacturers in Europe could be competitive, if they considered the service approach and did not try to compete on selling the cheapest module. Then you can transfer the costs of the materials into another financing system. Talk to the insurance companies – they would love to insure the materials. You know exactly where they are and exactly when you can harvest them. This is totally different to the business model where you sell the solar panels and you never know what happens to the materials.

And when you see that there are panels on the market that contain really environmentally toxic materials like cadmium telluride (CdTe), the manufacturers definitely need to change to a services-like business model.

Silicon panels comprise a much larger portion of the PV industry. What chemicals could be changed there?

The question is more, how to design PV in a different way from the beginning. The materials used in PV were never intended to be recycled. What will happen to these panels when they are decommissioned? It will never be recycling, only downcycling. For example, you use vinyl acetate to separate different layers in the solar module. The industry could come up with a technology that would allow it to separate these layers more easily and the vinyl acetate could be reused, for example, in new flooring systems. Also, there are far too many different materials being used. Solar panels consist of more than 280 different chemical components and there’s no need for this. You could do the same solar panel and equipment with less than 10 if you chose the best materials.

Which materials are in there which are not needed?

We would not need, if you handled it properly, aluminum or steel frames. We could use a polymer, a plastic, like the polycell foams for example, polysulfonic compounds, which can be used 500 times for the same purpose and which keep their size and strength at different temperatures. But this polymer needs to be a service. We are at the end of the possible optimization of the existing system, so we need to rethink it from a different perspective and from a different business model.

Can you expand on this?

To give you an example, I have been working with Ford Motor Company to take a vehicle apart. We wanted to know why it takes twice as much time to assemble a Ford Mustang compared to a Toyota Corolla. It turned out that Ford used 516 different bolts just to make this car. The logistics are amazing. Toyota used less than 20 bolts. Each bolt was much more expensive, but the overall system is so much cheaper.

How does this translate to solar?

Solar panels use the cheapest materials instead of defining a different business model. When your solar panels become a material bank you could sell ownership to third parties. To give you an idea for a windmill. A 7.5 MW windmill needs at least 12 [metric] tons of copper. When you don’t sell the copper and you give it to a third-party investor, a bank that can then sell one [metric] ton of copper to each of us, then you could store the copper in the windmill for 20 years. It would make the windmill €60,000 cheaper, because they don’t need to buy the copper anymore and they can pay an interest rate on the copper in the windmill.

Many manufacturers can’t think beyond cost. How do you broach a subject like this, where you say you need to redesign everything?

The technology is key for fighting against climate change. We better invest in this rather than in dealing with more energy efficiency of old module technology. Because with future innovation comes potential. If you can use the best materials, the module becomes a material bank. Because you know that for 25 years, the material is stored in a certain place, you could use the PV system as a storage place. But it needs different technologies. The industry has been optimizing the wrong things. It makes the wrong things perfect and now they’re perfectly wrong. Every solar panel needs to be seen as a technical nutrient not as a liability problem.  Interview with Becky Beetz