No matter how much the solar industry talks a good game about sustainability, the reality is that we are ignoring a looming issue: solar waste. There will be at least 24 billion PV modules installed on earth by 2050 – enough to stretch to the moon and back. That’s a conservative estimate. How on earth, literally, are we going to dispose of today’s PV modules safely and responsibly once they reach their end of life? What will the financial, environmental and societal cost be? You could call it the solar industry’s own ‘inconvenient truth’.
Solar energy is already infinitely better for our planet than burning coal, gas and oil, so it’s no wonder recyclability and circularity are low on the agenda today. Some people might think, what’s the huge rush to make solar even more sustainable, especially when the industry is still fighting to compete with fossil energy?
At DSM, we create materials technology for PV modules. We spend much of our time thinking about how materials perform at the most intricate and precise level – and not just our own materials, but many of the materials used in the solar industry. But we are also thinking about what happens after performance. How can we design with circularity in mind?
Start circular thinking
The best way to stop solar waste from piling up is to design based on the concept of circularity: nature’s own perfect cycle.
The idea is to move beyond pure recycling by re-imagining and redesigning the way that solar products are made and re-used – and of course, that starts with materials.
We need to find new ways of designing and manufacturing PV modules based on innovative materials that can be readily absorbed back into the solar supply chain, in their purest, highest quality form, rather than recycling into products were lower qualities are acceptable. Or even worse, sending them to landfill, with the associated increase in carbon- and eco-footprint.
Most importantly we need to do this in a profitable way that benefits all stakeholders. Which is precisely what the team here at DSM is starting to achieve in one area of PV module design – the backsheet.