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It is estimated that the United States will need to install up to twenty times the amount of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules currently in use to reach its emissions reduction goals for the year 2050. For the United States to meet this objective, PV manufacturing and installation must rapidly rise; however, additional options are available besides simply increasing the number of existing PV systems. Researchers at NREL have hypothesised that if PV modules had a longer lifespan, there would be a lower demand for the materials and products necessary to produce them.
The research team at NREL performed the first quantitative calculations of how the lifespan of PV modules and regeneration rates can influence the flows of PV materials through the year 2050 in a 100% carbon-free grid in the United States. In a recently published article for the scholarly publication, the researchers discussed different "what-if" scenarios in connection with the topic of Circular Economy Priorities for Photovoltaics in the Energy Transition.
Silvana Oviatt, a PV sustainability researcher at NREL and an author of the article, stated that "PV is a no-brainer for sustainability as a source of clean energy," but there are still issues about waste, material influences, and energy justice, particularly considering how rapidly PV manufacturing must grow to meet decarbonisation goals. By doing this work, we can put these difficulties into context and quantify possible answers.
"There is a propensity to jump straight to reprocessing as the remedy when evaluating a sustainable PV supply chain, when there are a lot of other circular economy levers to try first, like lifetime extension," said Heather Mirletz, the lead author of the article and a PhD student at the Colorado School of Mines. "The PV sustainability team at our company fields many inquiries concerning the repowering of existing PV systems and recycling. Because our ultimate goal is to guide how photovoltaic systems can be designed and implemented in the most environmentally responsible manner, the first step on our journey is to understand the material flows associated with the energy transition.
The researchers utilised PV deployment forecasts from the Solar Futures Study conducted by the United States Department of Energy and the "PV in the Circular Economy" tool to investigate the flow of PV module material through the year 2050.
The graph that is displayed above depicts, under a base case in which PV modules with a 35-year lifetime are deployed, the mass of PV modules that are predicted to be placed (shown as a dotted line), as well as the mass of PV modules that will reach their end-of-life (shown as dashed line).
In their investigation, the researchers considered a total of 336 possible outcomes. The highest and lower bounds of conceivable approaches to a circular economy of PV modules were each represented by two of the 336 possibilities. These two scenarios were chosen at random. The two possible outcomes involved modules with either a longer-than-average lifespan of 50 years or a shorter-than-average lifespan of 15 years but a high rate of closed-loop recycling (meaning materials are reused in new modules). Comparisons were made between the two scenarios and a baseline scenario, which assumed a module would have a lifetime of 35 years and a low recycling rate that reflected the technology available at the time. Because it is highly doubtful that 15-year modules would ever be developed, and because 50-year modules are not yet commercially available, the two scenarios serve as extreme points of contrast for one another.
Because longer module lifetimes would reduce the need for additional solar deployment in the United States, the amount of new material that would be required to accomplish the same goals would be reduced by 3% compared to the amount of new material that would be required under the baseline scenario. To prevent the requirement for greater amounts of new materials than the 35-year baseline scenario, the short-lived modules will require a closed-loop recycling rate of at least 95%.
The researchers identified three noteworthy developments in the fluxes of material:
- Long-lived modules not only minimise the requirement for new material but also allow a longer grace time to create and apply end-of-life reprocessing or reprocessing procedures. This is because it will take longer until the modules begin to be retired from service. To prevent the consumption of extra new materials, modules with shorter lifespans are required to achieve high rates of recollection and recycling and remanufacturing.
- The majority of today's photovoltaic modules are made up (by mass) of glass. It will be vital to consider PV glass when designing recycling or remanufacturing processes to assure a consistent supply of high-quality glass in addition to silicon and metals. PV glass can be recycled from old photovoltaic panels.
Teresa Barnes, one of the article’s authors and the manager of NREL's PV Reliability and System Performance Group, said that longer module lifetimes make it simpler to accomplish our PV deployment goals for decarbonisation. "Longer module lifetimes make it easier to accomplish our PV deployment goals," By developing systems correctly from the beginning, we can cut down on unnecessary replacements and additional manufacture. Recycling short-lived modules may seem like a good idea, but our mass balance and capacity calculations reveal that doing so may limit the amount of power PV can generate. Our next study on energy balance should further direct us toward the most affordable and effective approaches for PV deployment.
When modelling the fluxes of photovoltaic material until 2050, the NREL team used a programme called PV in the Circular Economy (PV ICE). Researchers can get the most recent data from the PV sector with the help of the PV ICE tool, which enables them to model the flow of PV materials throughout the next several decades. Because of this, they are better able to forecast the impacts of various shifts in market trends, advancements in technology, and regulations enacted by the government.
The open-source tool is divided into two primary categories. First, it compiles a list of the most important characteristics of today's PV modules and makes projections about the properties of future modules. These characteristics include the amounts of various materials the modules contain, the expected length of their lifetimes, and the efficiency with which they convert power. The second benefit is that it can monitor the modules, materials, and energies contained within them as they travel through the life cycle of PV.
Not only is solar energy a worthwhile investment for households but also for businesses and other investors. Solar energy may be used to power tools and machines, which can lower business operational expenses. Construction companies are a good example of this. The use of solar energy contributes to the protection of the environment by lowering gas emissions and cutting down on carbon footprint. Additionally, this produces fewer air toxins, which benefits one's health. It is a source of energy that can be utilised in various ways regardless of where you are in the world, and the future of solar power looks bright with many positive implications for humanity.
Why is solar energy generated by photovoltaic cells so important?
Solar photovoltaic energy is the most sustainable and environmentally friendly answer to the problem of environmental deterioration since it does not contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases, which are the primary cause of global warming.
Why will solar power be so crucial in the years to come?
Solar energy is an excellent replacement for fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal, which converts the sun's rays into unadulterated, pristine, and self-sustaining electricity. Additionally, it lowers global emissions of carbon footprint and greenhouse gases.
What role do solar panels play in the preservation of our natural resources?
Solar energy is a form of renewable energy that can significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change. This is vital for preserving human existence, as well as species and ecosystems. Solar energy has the potential to both enhance existing air quality and decrease the amount of water required for electricity generation.
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