Solar panels could be more sustainable

Friday June 6, 2014 10:47

Solar energy is hot. In the Netherlands, more and more companies and consumers are installing panels on their offices, homes or outbuildings. After all, they are sustainable. Green. And cheap. Or are they? How long does a solar panel actually last? And how easy is it to replace or recycle? ECN has gone back to the drawing board to develop a more sustainable model.

A blog by Maurice Goris, ECN solar panel specialist and organiser of a recent brainstorming session on sustainable panel redesign.

Today’s solar panels are well-made. They are built solidly in order to guarantee the longest possible working life. But eventually there does come a time when they stop working. Due to age or damage, for instance. Or because the owner decides to replace them. This is where recycling comes in. The European Union has made the collection of old panels compulsory since February 2014. Already, huge stockpiles are building up as they await recycling. So what do we do with the aluminium frame, the plate glass, the cells and the conductors? Modern panels are put together so well that they are almost impossible to dismantle. In practice, the frame and electrical connection box are removed and the rest simply crushed, with the shattered glass then recycled. Larger pieces of metal and the so-called “fluff” remnants are also recovered. But most of what is left is treated as waste and dumped.

To improve this situation, we gathered a group of colleagues from every corner of ECN around a table. The challenge: how can we modify the designs of all kinds of panel – crystalline, thin film and polymer – to make it easier to replace individual parts and to recycle as many components as possible separately. What elements or materials are unnecessary, or can be substituted with smarter alternatives? There was only one precondition: the panel’s working life must not be compromised. I was amazed by the clever ideas put forward – more than 90 in all. Why had we never thought of this before? For example, why not use materials that lose their adhesive strength at high temperatures or under X-rays or ultraviolet light. Or develop glass modules in which the cells hang separately?

That simple brainstorming session has fired our enthusiasm. Solar panels really can be designed in a more sustainable way. Without undermining their essential properties, we can bolster their “green’ image. We have now divided our proposed improvements into five groups for the development of better technologies: glass-glass modules, glass-polymer modules, polymer modules, modules with sacrificial layers and modules incorporating recycled biobased materials. We also want to look beyond our “sandpit” in Petten, so we are going to contact the packaging sector, recycling firms and the motor industry. What can we learn from cost-efficient upgrades in car production? How far can we go with recycling? Who is responsible for reuse and what are the benefits of recycling on a larger scale?

Do you have a contribution to make on this subject? ECN welcomes your ideas, practical examples and project proposals. Please contact Maurice Goris.



Category: Mei, Solar Energy, Corporate