Solar Magazine – RIVM roadmap for safe and sustainable solar panels: more attention is needed for environmental impact

In an exploration that is part of the innovation project Designing inclusively for a safe and sustainable circular economy transition (DIRECT), RIVM has investigated possible unwanted side effects of solar panels.

According to RIVM, it is important to take safety and sustainability into account when designing a circular product. Recycling, for example, is not sustainable if it costs a lot of energy and a lot of substances are emitted.

RIVM therefore developed the roadmap as a tool to monitor the environmental effects of the chemical substances used in the production process. A number of steps from this tool were subsequently tested in practice.

Products and processes
Three different products and processes were investigated. Firstly, the capture of CO2 from the air by algae, which is then used to make chemicals, secondly, the circular design of medical plastic devices and finally the use of nanomaterials in solar panels.

The RIVM study shows that if solar panels are recycled, far fewer metals end up in the environment than if they are deposited as waste. There is then a greater chance that lead, for example, runs into the ground.

Economic lifetime
Another negative effect on the sustainability of solar panels is the often short economic life, according to the researchers. Much shorter in any case than the lifetime of the solar panel itself. According to the RIVM, it appears that solar panels are now often replaced in their entirety if the inverter is broken. “In that case, it quickly becomes economically more advantageous to replace the entire solar panel, because new solar panels usually generate more power. But if the old solar panels are not recycled, the CO2 emissions will be greater and the environmental benefits will be smaller.’

Biggest profit
RIVM therefore concludes that the greatest gain can clearly be achieved at the end of the life phase. ‘This could take the form of designing solar panels that are easier to recycle, or at the end of the chain by improving recycling techniques. It is clear that far fewer metals leach out of solar panels and end up in the environment when recycled than in landfills. We have also shown that although an early replacement of solar panels generates more electricity, this yield has a larger CO2 footprint per delivered energy if the old panels are not recycled to a high standard.’

Life extension
According to the researchers, extending the lifetime, reuse and recycling of solar panels is essential for a high-quality contribution to a circular economy. “Although our analysis only contains a few substances, solar panel types and scenarios for a circular economy, the methods already provide insight into opportunities to reduce environmental risks and increase sustainability performance. When designing solar panels, choices will always have to be made. It is now important that designers, buyers and politicians can weigh these aspects in the various phases of design.’

2 methods

Within the DIRECT project, RIVM and the Center for Environmental Sciences at Leiden University (CML) have developed 2 methods to make an initial estimate during the design phase of solar panels and solar panel installations.

Firstly, an estimate of the possible new risks to people or the environment resulting from the use of substances in solar panels and secondly, the environmental impact of early replacement of old solar panels.

Of all the possible side effects, RIVM has limited its research to the safety of chemical substances and the effect of lifetime on the CO2 footprint. A detailed computational model was used to estimate the emission of substances from new solar panels and their impact on the environment. This model is 6 fabrics and 2 types of solar panels that are not yet on the market. In addition, a calculation tool has been used to make a rough estimate of whether replacing old solar panels with more efficient new systems also results in less CO2 emissions.

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