Lightening the Environmental Burden of Solar Power
Pitt Researcher Paul Leu Leads $2 Million DOE Project to Reduce Solar Power Waste
Solar energy is one of the world’s fastest growing industries: solar installations have grown by 40 percent every year for the past decade, and the technology behind them has exploded along with it. This development creates “green jobs,” stimulates the U.S. economy, and reduces U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, but it also leaves a bevy of waste in its wake, as solar modules degrade over time and must be retired from operation after about 25 years of use. Over 90% of solar modules are currently estimated to wind up in landfills.
“The photovoltaic (PV) industry faces a major technical and economic barrier in its ability to handle end-of-life and recycling management,” said Paul Leu, associate professor of Industrial Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering. “This is an imminent and critical challenge. The rapid expansion of PV over several decades is now creating a surge of solar waste and to address it we need to really understand the full impact of PV panel waste streams.”
Leu is leading a $2 million, multi-institution project, funded by the Department of Energy in partnership with the REMADE Institute, to develop a new framework to address the growing end-of-life (EOL) and recycling issues in the solar industry. The resulting RE-SOLAR framework will include a software tool that can predict the life cycle of PV technology designs and incorporate circular economy principles in the industry, while also developing recycling technology and plants. Additionally, the project will design an optimized industrial recycling plant to address current recycling issues in PV energy.
The RE-SOLAR project will apply circular economy principles to the solar industry — a model that prioritizes the reuse, remanufacturing and recycling of waste materials, rather than throwing them away. The RE-SOLAR project will build upon a software tool created by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The team will add metrics like embodied energy and carbon emissions to this tool, using it to predict future PV waste and produce a fuller picture of the industry’s impact. This tool can then be used to improve efforts to redesign, reduce, replace, reuse, and recycle solar modules as well as increase their lifetime.
“Solar power is estimated to save 700 million tons of carbon dioxide every year and has the highest potential power of all the renewable energy sources; howeverk global PV waste streams surged in 2016, producing between 43,500 and 250,000 metric tonnes,” said Garvin Heath, researcher at NREL who is collaborating on the project. “At its heart, our project aims to ensure we’re getting the most benefit out of solar power while reducing its more harmful environmental impacts.”
Seven institutions are partnering with Pitt: University of California at Irvine, NREL, First Solar, Alfred University, Sunnking, the Aluminum Association, and Electronic Recyclers International (ERI). Leu is a principal investigator along with Julie Schoenung at UC Irvine, Garvin Heath and Silvana Ovaitt at NREL, Gabrielle Gaustad at Alfred University, Adam Shine at Sunnking, Marshal Wang at the Aluminum Association, Lee-Tan Lu at ERI and Parikhit Sinha at First Solar. “Our cross-disciplinary approach integrates stakeholders in research, manufacturing, and recycling across the PV life cycles, and it can be adapted as new technology is developed,” Leu noted.
The REMADE Institute brings together “industry innovators, academic researchers, and national labs to enhance the nation’s industrial competitiveness and lead the transfer to a Circular Economy in the U.S.,” according to its website. The DOE partnered with the REMADE Institute last year to provide more than $16 million in funding for 23 projects that will reduce carbon emissions across the manufacturing sector.