It takes more than recycling to establish a circular clean economy, says NREL


Researchers with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in a literature review of more than 3,000 scientific publications exploring the life cycle of the most common solar and lithium-ion battery technologies, have found that alternatives to recycling may have untapped potential to build an effective circular economy for solar photovoltaic (PV) and battery technologies.

The review does not dismiss recycling, instead it promotes other less-explored aspects of manufacturing and hardware usage to develop supplemental strategies to create a more efficient, cost effective and circular economy for clean energy technologies, allowing these technologies to become cleaner in their own right. According to the researchers, Garvin A. Heath, Dwarakanath Ravikumar, Brianna Hansen, and Elaine Kupets, the emphasis on recycling, while valuable, may overlook the challenges and opportunities that research into other strategies could reveal.

“If you can keep them as a working product for longer, that’s better than deconstructing it all the way down to the elements that occurs during recycling,” said Garvin Heath, senior environmental scientist and energy analyst and Distinguished Member of Research Staff at NREL. “And when a product does reach the end of its life, recycling is not the only option.”

According to Heath, this is because the deconstruction, recycling and reconstruction process takes more energy and generates more associated greenhouse gas emissions than building products with longer usage and service lives does in comparison.

The researchers share that designing products with fewer overall materials, especially hazardous materials, will improve those products’ environmental impacts more than recycling can. Recycling itself is also an imperfect process, as there are currently no integrated recycling processes that can recover all the materials for either technology, and existing research has focused more on lab-scale methods, rather than commercial-scale.

“People often summarize the product life cycle as ‘take, make, waste.’” Heath said. “Recycling has received a lot of attention because it addresses the waste part, but there are ways to support a circular economy in the take part and the make part, too.”

Recently, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced $60 million in funding to support second-life applications for batteries once used to power EVs, as well as new processes for recycling materials back into the battery supply chain. These funding opportunities are part of the government’s strategy to bolster America’s supply chain and reduce the reliance on competing nations.

The Biden Administration has also committed $3.1 billion in funding to increase American-made batteries and components, bolster domestic supply chains, create good-paying jobs, and lower costs. The plan is to support the creation of new, retrofitted, and expanded commercial facilities as well as manufacturing demonstrations, and battery recycling.While all of these initiatives support increased recycling on the commercial level, there have yet been no federally funded initiatives to lower materials’ usage in PV and storage applications, although such conclusions could be reached by organizations funded by either of these announcements.

In September 2021, NREL scientists published research that describes how to motivate the market first to reuse solar panels, and then recycle them by guiding national industrial policy to create a financially viable end-of-life solar panel industry.

The research was published in Nature Energy and offers a real number for policy makers to consider: a $10 to 18 per panel subsidy to pay for recycling at the end of the panel’s life.

The researchers’ projections showed that 40% of all solar panels could be reused and recycled using subsidies equal to $18 per panel for 12 years. At that price, a profitable and sustainable solar panel recycling industry could establish itself by 2032.

The NREL research said that specific tools could be effective at minimizing the landfilling of solar panels. The first simply would ban solar panels from landfills. The second option would subsidize solar panel recycling in order to lower the effective cost of recycling solar panels as the industry scales.

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