Measuring Sustainability of Solar Modules for Energy Transition: Mass, Energy, and Circularity

Heather Mirletz, Silvana Ovaitt, Macarena Mendez Ribo, Seetharaman Sridhar, Teresa Barnes

Research output: NRELPoster


Transition to a carbon-free energy system is crucial for global decarbonization and underpins Circular Economy (CE) goals. Photovoltaic (PV) technology is required for Energy Transition, but manufacturing and circular pathways can be material, energy, and carbon-intensive. Therefore, we need a prioritization of sustainability strategies for PV evolution and lifecycle management in the context of Energy Transition. This study employs a suite of quantitative metrics to compare different proposed sustainability strategies for PV modules on their ability to achieve Energy Transition. Proposals for sustainable PV range from high-yield, high-efficiency paradigms, to short-lived and fully recyclable, to long-lasting, indestructible modules. We leverage a global decarbonization deployment schedule through 2100 with the open-source PV in Circular Economy (PV ICE) tool to quantify the impacts of different evolving module design scenarios covering the range of proposed sustainability strategies. First, modules are compared on effective capacity and required replacements to meet and maintain decarbonization capacity targets through 2100. We demonstrate the effects of lifetime, degradation, and reliability on effective capacity. Next, we quantify and compare virgin material demands and lifecycle wastes, examining the impacts of lifetime and recycling rates. Finally, and critically for renewable energy technologies, we quantify the energy demands required to achieve the decarbonization capacity targets and calculate energy balance metrics (net energy, energy return on investment). These results are then summarized into a metric matrix, demonstrating tradeoffs and the importance of longevity. Our suite of mass and energy metrics provides stakeholders and decision-makers with quantitative data on circular economy choices for PV in the energy transition, enabling informed evaluation of tradeoffs of different PV module designs and CE pathways.
Original languageAmerican English
PublisherNational Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)
StatePublished - 2024

Publication series

NamePresented at the STEM Poster Day at the Capital, 13 March 2024, Denver, Colorado

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/PO-5K00-89142


  • circular economy
  • energy
  • lifetime
  • materials
  • photovoltaics
  • recycling


Dive into the research topics of 'Measuring Sustainability of Solar Modules for Energy Transition: Mass, Energy, and Circularity'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this