Closing the Loops on Solar Photovoltaics Modules: An Agent-Based Modeling Approach for the Study of Circular Economy Strategies

Research output: NRELPoster


Solar photovoltaics (PV) installed capacity have grown exponentially since the early 2000s (average annual growth rate of 50%). With 4,700 GW projected installed capacity by 2050, the volume of PV panels waste is also expected to become substantial. Though renewables are a sine qua non to the establishment of a truly circular economy (CE), the issue arising from their end-of-life management needs to be resolved. The management of PV end-of-life also represent a singular opportunity to create value, from recovered valuable, rare or critical materials (e.g. silver, tellurium, indium). Moreover, the PV case illustrates some of the current barriers to CE; for instance, the need for a common definition of waste (PV are defined as e-waste in the European Union but as general waste in the United States) and potential loss of innovations' advantages (PV average efficiency has continuously grown the past 10 years). In this study, an agent-based modeling (ABM) approach is proposed to simulate PV end-of-life management in the United States. The model explores how the decisions of the various actors involved in handling PV waste affect the quantities of PV that are reused, recycled, or land-filled. In the model, manufacturers, residential, and nonresidential PV owners, installers, and recyclers are represented by agents while governmental policies and regulations are treated as exogenous variables. PV-market data are used to define agents' characteristics (e.g., installed PV capacities or producing costs). Agents' decision rules draw on the literature related to industrial symbiosis (IS) and peoples' waste behaviors as they appear as the most widely used model to implement CE principles at a meso level. Specifically, the concepts of mutual trust between IS actors and knowledge about the IS philosophy are yielded to define the agents' decision process. The primary outputs of the ABM are the costs and volume of waste associated with each end-of-life pathway. Preliminaries results indicate recycling of residential PV is affected by the cost, perceived difficulty of recycling behaviors, and social norms. Moreover, the type of network connecting agents and the initial recycling rate strongly influence results. The model also highlights the crucial role of recycling behavior adoption: in case of early failure of PV, recycled volumes increase by about 40%. This represents an additional 5.7 billion USD from potential recovered silver. Finally, although results for the PV case are presented here, the developed ABM aims at being a general tool for the study of CE strategies and the CE transition. Furthermore, steps of this research include extending the model to encompass circular economy strategies (e.g., design for recycling or lifetime extension) and validating its general architecture from various case studies.
Original languageAmerican English
StatePublished - 2020

Publication series

NamePresented at the Photovoltaic Reliability Workshop, 25-27 February 2020, Lakewood, Colorado

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/PO-6A20-76139


  • agent-based modeling
  • circular economy
  • e-waste
  • end-of-life management
  • photovoltaics
  • PV
  • rare material recovery
  • recycling


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