Why a Circular Economy?
Clean energy industries like solar are set to grow exponentially in the coming decade, and the way we manage that growth is critically important. Our impact on the environment is not limited to the carbon emissions we can reduce by adding solar to the grid – we must foster a circular economy approach to clean energy that accounts for the life cycle of our products, and we must ensure our deployment has a net positive impact on the land we occupy.
Building a circular economy can benefit businesses, society, and the environment. Rethinking manufacturing, the life cycle of products used in solar projects, and end-of-life management can broaden the positive environmental impact and the economic potential of our industry. A circular economy requires us to rethink how we can sustainably use and reuse resources. It challenges us to shift our view away from merely producing an ‘end-product’ towards producing more efficient products so that we produce less and products that are recyclable, reusable, and more sustainable.
Linear Economy versus Circular Economy
In a linear economy, resources are turned into products that are sold and then disposed. There may be efforts to reduce and reuse products, but this can only have a limited impact on sustainability. Still, a linear economy maintains a take-make-dispose format. In a circular economy, there is a large emphasis on reusing and upcycling products. Uniquely, the circular economy requires rethinking and redesigning products and the processes with which we make them.
Applying a Circular Economy Lens to the Solar Industry
We must be proactive and develop long-term strategies that foster a truly circular economy for energy and electricity. The solutions are there. Our members are working to develop take-back and recycling programs, and every step in the supply chain has a role to play. We can leapfrog the short-sighted approaches of the past and build a low-cost, sustainable energy economy that can support the needs of future generations.
Solar equipment can last for decades, particularly with proper maintenance. Various companies have identified ways to extend the lives of PV models, very much in alignment with circular economy thinking. In some cases, PV modules can be reused or refurbished to have a ‘second life’ of generating electricity. The other components of solar systems can also be handled responsibly. Inverters can be recycled, and racking equipment can be re-utilized with newer technology or recycled like other metals.
Currently, solar panels have an average life of 20-30 years, and the lifetime of an inverter can be upwards of 10 years. Therefore, many solar products have not yet reached end-of-life, and in fact, panels installed in the early 1980s are still performing at effective level.
Some SEIA members operate take-back and recycling programs or engage with suitable waste handlers, disposers or resellers of their products. Some companies refurbish and resell PV equipment. You can learn more about Recycling & End-of-Life Considerations here. SEIA's PV Recycling Working Group has developed a national PV recycling program. This program will include specific benefits for members who utilize the services of SEIA Preferred Recycling Partners. Click here to find out more.