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Experts at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have outlined key measures to limit and reuse the materials used in diverse designs of photovoltaics and lithium-ion batteries (LIB), to establish a circular economy-based sustainable strategy for the sector.

Energy storage can mitigate solar forecast errors aligning well with the sharp demand peaks induced by widespread solar deployment. Energy storage solutions are expected to play a prominent role in expanding the share of electricity demand that can be met by photovoltaics-generated electricity.

According to BloombergNEF, the unit price for LIBs in the last ten years dropped by less than 12% from 2010 and is expected to decrease to 4% by 2035. Given the price fall, the U.S. energy storage market has witnessed a drastic rise in demand for lithium-ion batteries. As the price continues to decrease, it is projected that the demand for lithium batteries will increase 44,000-fold from 2010 to 2035.

Photovoltaics contribute the largest share of approximately 45% of electricity in the U.S. generated from renewable energy annually, which is the largest share of any technology in the decarbonization scenario.

Electricity generation by technology as simulated in the Solar Futures Study

The study points out that to meet net-zero emissions and its cost targets for power production, the U.S. must produce 1 TW of photovoltaics by 2050, accompanied by comparable energy storage capacity, primarily battery-driven.

With a focus on improving material utilization for PVs, NREL is working in collaboration with the Durable Module Materials Consortium (DuraMAT), which is researching ways to extend the useful life of PV modules. The Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment (BOTTLE) Consortium is studying ways to improve plastics recycling with NREL.

In the U.S, the total utility-scale power capacity totaled 1.2 TW in 2020, including approximately 3% solar. With increased deployments, end-of-life management technologies can address the demand for modules and batteries. The study suggests increased leveraging of digital information systems to help the U.S. photovoltaics and energy markets accelerate towards a circular economy.

A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse and return to the biosphere, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and business models.

The researchers examined certain critical pathways towards a circular economy, including key insights, gaps, and opportunities for research and implementation of a circular economy for PV and battery technologies, including strategies that are currently being underutilized. Currently, there are no integrated recycling processes to recover all materials for either technology, while there are no mechanisms to reduce the use of hazardous materials to improve the stability and life span of photovoltaics.

According to the U.S. Energy Storage Monitor report released recently, America added 955 MW and 2,873 MWh of new installations across all segments in the first quarter of 2022, taking the total grid-scale installations capacity to 2.3 GWh.

A 2020 World Bank report stated that the demand for critical minerals used in clean energy technologies would grow by 500% by 2050. The report estimated that over three billion tons of metals and minerals would be required to deploy wind, solar, and geothermal power and energy storage projects in the coming years.