Systematic management of end-of-life photovoltaic modules at the crossroads of circular economy and environmental sustainability
As part of the worldwide effort to expand green energy production, the demand for the PV power has skyrocketed in the past decades leading to a massive market share globally (310 GW in 2016, which is predicted to rocket to 700 GW in 2020 and then 4500 GW by 2050). However, solar panels themselves lead to environmental burdens at different stages of their life cycle such as production process, transportation, and the End-of-Life (EoL) stage which cannot be ignored. This thesis explores the EoL management of the PV panels. This thesis combines five individual manuscripts publications in scientific journals: the first one studies the worldwide status of the EoL PV panels in terms of influential waste assessment factors since 2000 to 2018 and discovers the critical gaps for further consideration as published in the journal article 1. The findings of the first paper show that future exploration must be focused on forecasting the PV waste streams, development of recycling technologies, reverse logistics and the policies of individual PV consumer countries. Thereupon, the comprehensive projections of PV waste generation in Australia from 2001 to 2060 is carried out. The results of this part of the analysis revealed the possibility of a domestic circular economy thorough the estimation of the material flow of decommissioned PV panels until 2060 in terms of volumes of PV waste and its potential value creation by proper treatment. However, these results are highly dependable on the policy and future market share of the PV panels in Australia. Remarkably, Australia is estimated to face around 1–8 million tonnes of decommissioned PV until 2060. The recovery of the EoL PV raw materials (out of the panels installed only form year 2001-17) can lead to the value creation of nearly 1.2 billion dollars which is promising (journal article 2). The third part of the analysis was conducted by the environmental impacts and the economic profitability assessment of the domestic treatment of the 20,000 tonnes EoL PV modules per year in Australia. Based on the assumptions of this study, the finding confirms additional evidence that the domestic treatment of EoL PV module can contribute to high-profit margins even from the first year of running the business while making a considerable annual reduction on environmental burdens majoring at about 30% global warming, over 50% terrestrial ecotoxicity, and resource losses in contrast with the total burdens may cause through landfilling. It is followed by promising economic profitability by starting the treatment business between the year 2031-35 as published in journal article 3. Then, an innovative framework for systematic management of PV panel is proposed in part 4, where the outcome shows the essence of multi-level management of EoL PV panels and the strong contribution of multiple parties to achieve environmental sustainability and circular economy. Along with these findings, developing a strong monitoring system is a key factor to succeed in each level of management towards sustainability (paper 4). Last but not least, a critical PV waste assessment is carried out to extend the scale of research to 35 member countries of OECD region and provide inclusive results and discussion on how to manage the unprecedented amount of waste in OECD. The results are presented in the journal article 5 which is submitted in “Global Environmental Change” (currently under review). Besides, the significance of PV waste assessment in OECD presented that the overall PV waste stream in OECD is estimated to be about 25-28.5 Million Tonne (MT) entailing serious regulatory and policy system of every local member country and OECD as whole to prevent significant economic loss and potential environmental burdens imposed by improper treatment and transboundary movement of this invaluable waste flow. It is also deduced from the results that a joint PV waste treatment program would be one of the best scenarios to cope with the crucial challenges of end of life treatment of this complicated waste stream.
All in all, this is an interdisciplinary research that integrates engineering, management, and the environmental science by applying an innovative policy and management framework, along with economic analysis and environmental impact assessment to the decommissioned solar panels in both small and large scale to create, improve, and promote the essence of sustainability and circular economy in this sector. Thus, this investigation has provided holistic insights and advancements in the field of photovoltaic waste management. The research highlighted the gaps and implemented practical solutions and assessments which will shed some very useful light into the global outlook of PV waste management and empower the policy-makers and authorities to address sustainable EoL PV management targets leading to socio-economic benefits such as material recovery, massive resources conservation, saving the environment, creating new industries and jobs.