‘We will need a solution’


On a personal level, what professional experience do you bring to Circusol, and by extension the solar industry?

I am working in a research unit that is dealing with circular materials management and circular business models. At Vito, we do a lot of research for policymakers, who want to fine tune their strategies regarding waste management and materials management, which includes the circular economy. But we are also working with industry on the same topics, some strategic work, and trying to support them to employ circularity in a production environment.

It is a very exciting topic to work on. I arrived at Vito last year, I was at Saint Gobain, and before that I had some experience in the environmental sector. I have a wide expertise and interest in whatever has to do with sustainability and the circularity of materials.

How have you found working with the PV industry?

The exciting thing is that things are evolving quite well; it is a relatively young sector compared to construction, where I was working before. PV is a new and innovative product and there is still a lot of innovation going on. Renewable energy is really hot. People have, over the last decade, made a lot of progress and policymakers are now really focusing on renewable energy and starting to push the importance of renewable energy. The business is growing very fast – with some growing pains, of course.

It is a very dynamic environment compared to other markets. There are a lot of challenges ahead of us and it is not a matter of choice, but a matter of need. Energy is key in our society and finding the right sources, and exploiting them in a sustainable way with sustainable business models behind these products is the challenge.

But isn’t there an inherent tension between sustainable practices, which might slow down deployment in or increase costs, and the urgent need to deploy as much PV as possible as fast as possible?

In the first place everyone was looking for new sources of energy and PV came into the picture – most people had the assumption that a shift to PV would solve everything. Now people are realizing, including the research community and academics, that just shifting from one technology to another will not be enough – we also need material resources to produce these technologies and we know these resources are limited.

It is something you see in other industries. In construction, where I was working first, we have the same discussions. First – there was a focus on energy efficiency, and people were asked to use better insulation for their homes and make sure that the energy performance of the building was ok. Once that was running people realized that it is also important to look into the materials [used for insulation]. To produce the materials you need energy and other resources, and there you see the focus is shifting from energy efficiency on the energy side to the materials side – that is also going on in PV.

What materials in PV worry you most?

If you look at a PV panel, most of it is made out of silica and then some metals and some glass. Recycling those is not the biggest problem. It is the less visible elements, added in very low concentrations to the panel. It is these added elements that are really scarce in our world and are very, very difficult to recycle and recover in the end.

Basically, the main issue is with recycling. Talking about circularity, most people think about recycling as the best option. But what you see is that it is very hard to recover all the elements that are in low concentrations – to recover them is very hard.

There again it is not only in PV – recycling is very often downcycling. It is very hard to get the same quality of materials back after your recycling process. There are elements or additives in a product in low concentrations that are very hard to recover – often technically is it is possible but not feasible and just too costly.

Silver in a PV panel is an example. There are some techniques to recover it but it’s just too difficult – and that is same for exotic elements in other electronics. They are the issues we will run into very soon.

This is a discussion of recycling and end of life. I understand that Circusol is also looking at ways business models can be developed to see PV products reused or their lifetimes extended – Is that right?

What we are really focusing on are the business aspects – trying to get panels in the loop and get them reused. When we look at it from a life cycle perspective, using PV panels just a little longer, by reusing or not discarding them, is always better environmentally speaking than to replace them with new panels – even if new panels are much more efficient.

It is better even to use older panels until they are really end of life and that is the main starting point for our Circusol project – let’s make sure we make use of the technology that is on the roofs and in the infrastructure now, for as long as possible – because we will cause a lot of environmental impacts if we don’t.

This kind of hits a discussion within the PV industry in terms of sustainability, where some materials are particularly durable, but also may be toxic – and cannot be recycled. So, with this trade off, it is far better to have a longer lived product?

That is always a discussion you have between sustainability and durability. There are two strategies from my side: a product that will last very long and can be used for many, many years – that always result in a product that will have a lower environmental impact if you look at the impact per year of use. The other strategy is making products that maybe can be discarded after a short period but would have little or no impact on the environment.

In literature regarding circular economy there is a widespread concept describing wo kinds of loops: technical cycles where you try to make long-lasting products and in the end make sure they can recycled, reused, refurbished, remanufactured – and then it doesn’t matter if it contains harmful elements or not.

On the other hand, you can have other cycles which do not necessarily have to be long time cycles, but which are bio-based cycles – where you have products that, like in nature, can be discarded without harming the environment. In nature, trees are losing their leaves every year but it doesn’t matter because they are not harmful and even beneficial as they degrade and return to the tree as a nutrient source. Short living products are not always a problem, as far as you make sure they are not harmful and well-designed from an eco-design perspective.

So, am I right to assume PV would be on the first side of that equation?

I haven’t yet seen a biodregadable PV panel, so I think it would be the first way where you try to make use of your products for as long as possible – where they can be used in a technical cycles where they have a second, third and fourth life.

Where is PV currently in terms of this technical cycle?

I think the PV industry have embraced the concepts, in Europe and elsewhere. There are some organizations that have been established by the sector itself like PVCycle, which aim to establish recycling routes for the PV panels, which is a good thing. In principle the sector is behind the idea of recovering their products at the end of the lifecycle.

But in reality, PV recycling and reuse is still really a niche activity. Maybe that is just because it is a quite young sector and that the panels that have been installed over the past decade are still in use – so there isn’t a lot of waste at the moment. But what we also know is that the sector should be prepared for the next step, because we know that PV installations that are working right now will be discarded in the coming years, as some are almost at the end of their product life.

We know that a lot of waste is going to come in the coming years and for Circusol that is the reason why we are doing this project – we know there will be a massive pile of PV waste by 2030 and even further away to 2050. We are facing millions of tons – by 2030 between 1.7 and 8 million tons. And 2050, there will be 62 and 78 million tons. That is a lot of material and we will need a solution.

Recycling is just one option, but maybe there are other options, and those are the options we are exploring.

And where are you at with the Circusol project?

It is a four-year project, in February we presented our first interim report to the European Commission – so we are half way by now. We have done a lot of research about the sector, about PV and battery recycling and eco-design, and about possible business models that could be used. We have started up the demonstrator projects where we want to test some of the ideas we have about product service systems and the use of second life PV panels, and second life batteries for storage.

We have five demonstrator projects, all five have been started up and we are monitoring and gathering data from these demonstrations. In the coming months, I hope we will have more very tangible results to share with the sector and with the community, but right now it is a little too early because we are still processing all the data and getting them into interesting reports.

Interview by Jonathan Gifford

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