EU project CIRCUSOL completed after five years

20.04.2023 Nowadays, retired PV systems usually end up too early in recycling. The EU research project CIRCUSOL was launched in 2018 in order to counteract this over-hasty management of resources. The lessons learned will help the solar power industry build a circular economy model for PV modules.

Photovoltaics (PV) are steadily gaining in importance in terms of a more sustainable energy source. However, as a result, an increasing number of discarded PV components end up prematurely in recycling, polluting the environment and wasting resources. As part of the Horizon Europe project CIRCUSOL, research institutions and companies from all over Europe addressed this issue and sought solutions based on the principles of circular economy. To this end, the partners looked at all lifecycle stages of PV modules and sought new approaches in the area of energy storage systems. The researchers from the division Industrial Engineering and Management Science at Bern University of Applied Sciences BFH dealt with two specific tasks within the project: the development of a database containing information on the condition of PV modules and batteries, and the development of a simulation model that represents the complex interrelationships of a wide variety of factors in a circular economy model.

Database shows the circularity potential

In order to simplify the exchange of information within the solar power industry and thereby make the value chains more efficient and sustainable, the researchers at BFH developed the prototype of a database. Thanks to this database, it should be possible in the future for stakeholders within the value chain to find PV modules again and to obtain information quickly and easily about their physical condition and circularity potential. At present, at the end of the first use, it is not known in most cases whether modules are only worn but still functional, or whether there is actually a defect that cannot be repaired. The extra work that a precise product assessment and evaluation would require is economically disproportionate to the revenue that could be generated with circular business models for second-life products. This is where the database developed by BFH comes into play: PV modules should be registered right at the beginning of their value chain and then tracked so that information on their condition is available at the end of their first use. The prototype of this database will be further developed in a next step and subsequently be made available to stakeholders in the solar power industry. A Swiss follow-up project is already in the planning stages.

Model depicts complex interrelationships

However, the successful development and implementation of a circular business model for the solar power industry requires more than just information on the condition of the products. Instead, many distinct factors must be considered, such as technical, financial, market, environmental and regulatory factors. The researchers at BFH simulate the interaction of these factors in a so-called system dynamics model in order to better understand the complex interactions of the various influences. The modelling results show that rising electricity prices are the strongest driver of growing demand for PV systems. However, the model predicts that, due to falling system prices, the market share of electricity production with PV systems will grow even if electricity prices remain constant. The simulations also show that reused PV modules are currently in difficulty, since secondary use is only financially attractive if the costs of electricity production are lower or at most the same as with new PV modules. That is currently not the case.

Recommendations for action for the solar power industry

Based on the knowledge gained in the project, the CIRCUSOL project partners developed recommendations and strategies that can promote the establishment of circular business models for the solar power industry. This includes reducing premature defects caused by maintenance, adapting the design of PV modules so that raw materials can be recovered more easily, and developing processes that make it easy to collect and share data.

stefan grösser
Prof. Dr Stefan Grösser was in charge of the BFH work packages.

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