2023 IEKTopics|Establishing New Industry Value Chains to Achieve Circular Economy

In order to achieve net-zero, we need to change the way we think and we implement nowadays. According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), using renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency is vital, but would only address 55% of global emissions. To reach net-zero, we also have to improve resource circularity including the food, products, and materials etc.

However, the first edition of Circularity Gap Report in 2018 showed the global circularity was 9.1% , and now 7.2% in 2023. This means we still highly rely on virgin materials instead of circular economy. Rare and critical raw materials may be easier to be recycled because of their higher economic value such as rare earth metal. To dramatically increase the global circularity percentage, we have to change our mind to recycle and reuse more products and materials around our daily life, such as plastic packages or photovoltaic (PV) system. So, it’s time to accelerate to expand the implementation of recourse circularity. By implementing circular economy, we can tackle the remaining 45% to meet net zero in 2050.

The end-of-life stage was overlooked by the players in the photovoltaic (PV) industry value chain, due to the low volume of waste and the low percentage of critical materials present in photovoltaic modules, as well as ensuring the economic profitability of a recycling chain. Technological advances in this field were therefore mainly focused on increasing solar cell efficiency and PV module power. However, in recent years, with the deployment of policies supporting renewable energies, like photovoltaic energy, the rapid development of installations and the dismantling of the first photovoltaic power plants, the quantity of panels at the end of their life is becoming significant and growing rapidly.

According to the 2016 analysis report by the IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) and the IEA-PVPS (International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power Systems) [3], the cumulative volume of photovoltaic waste is estimating at 1.7 million tonnes worldwide by 2030. This forecast takes into account the 30-year functional life of PV modules. In fact, the scenario that takes into account factors linked to early and mid-life failures and early replacement of photovoltaic plants for reasons of economic profitability and wear and tear predicts a volume of 8 million tonnes by 2030

In view of these figures and as part of a circular approach, specific channels for reusing and recycling modules at the end of their life has to be developed to avoid the accumulation of waste and thus encourage the recovery of materials. Until now, photovoltaic waste has often ended up in landfill (outside Europe) or in down cycling. The end-of-life stage is therefore now a crucial point in the life cycle of photovoltaic products, with the aim of developing a circular, profitable and sustainable value chain and moving towards a carbon-neutral photovoltaic industry.

Several projects at CEA LITEN are dealing with those strategic orientations. Through European project or industrial project, the Solar Department is developing new equipment to dismantle solar panels as well as technological solutions to recovery materials. Besides, supporting the association SOREN in France, CEA participated in defining a new law of eco modulation for manufacturing solar panels, taking account the quantity of critical material like Silver, the percentage of recycling materials used in the manufacturing process and the non-presence of disturber material like EVA, fluorine in Backsheet or even Epoxy in resin.

Our R&D activities, supporting by two technological platform offer us the advantage to work on new materials “designed to recycle” and to follow the performance and understanding the degradation in real conditions. This outdoor platform based in South of the France in Cadarache is at that time following  several “Design to Recycle” Solar panel supplying by the ITRI Institute. 

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