Circular Economy Priorities for Photovoltaics in the Energy Transition

Heather Mirletz, Silvana Ovaitt, Seetharaman Sridhar, Teresa Barnes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus Citations


Among the many ambitious decarbonization goals globally, the US intends grid decarbonization by 2035, requiring 1 TW of installed photovoltaics (PV), up from ~110 GW in 2021. This unprecedented global scale-up will stress existing PV supply chains with increased material and energy demands. By 2050, 1.75 TW of PV in the US cumulatively demands 97 million metric tonnes of virgin material and creates 8 million metric tonnes of life cycle waste. This analysis leverages the PV in Circular Economy tool (PV ICE) to evaluate two circular economy approaches, lifetime extension and closed-loop recycling, on their ability to reduce virgin material demands and life cycle wastes while meeting capacity goals. Modules with 50-year lifetimes can reduce virgin material demand by 3% through reduced deployment. Modules with 15-year lifetimes require an additional 1.2 TW of replacement modules to maintain capacity, increasing virgin material demand and waste unless >90% of module mass is closed-loop recycled. Currently, no PV technology is more than 90% closed-loop recycled. Glass, the majority of mass in all PV technologies and an energy intensive component with a problematic supply chain, should be targeted for a circular redesign. Our work contributes data-backed insights prioritizing circular PV strategies for a sustainable energy transition.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numbere0274351
Number of pages21
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number9
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Mirletz et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-5K00-81874


  • circular economy
  • decarbonization
  • glass
  • lifetime
  • mass
  • photovoltaics
  • recycling
  • reliability
  • Solar Futures
  • supply chain
  • virgin material demands
  • wastes


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