To maximize the value of solar PV materials and minimize waste, there is growing interest in sustainable end-of-life PV options and establishing a circular economy for energy materials. Most research thus far has focused on how to technically and economically recycle or reuse PV materials but does not consider how social behavior factors in. By considering consumer awareness and behavior, consumers could become a part of the solution and help accelerate the adoption of circular economy approaches.
“Consumer awareness and attitude are an important piece of the puzzle that must be considered in PV circular economy research and solutions,” said Julien Walzberg, lead author of a new article titled “Role of Social Factors in Success of Solar Photovoltaic Reuse and Recycle Programs” in Nature Energy. “A solution may be technically feasible, but if there’s no incentive for consumers to do it, it won’t work.”
For the first time, Walzberg and National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) analysts applied agent-based modeling to end-of-life PV management to understand how people make decisions about recycling or reusing PV modules — marking a major shift in how we understand the potential for circular economy strategies to be successful. As discussed in a follow-on Nature Energy article, the NREL analysis shows the importance of factoring in peer influence and attitudes toward recycling to reflect the real-world situation and accelerate circular economy strategies. The authors of the accompanying article — including Professor Martin Green of University of New South Wales, recipient of the Alternative Nobel prize in 2002 and Global Energy Prize in 2018 — make a call for all future research on circular economy strategies to consider social factors like Walzberg demonstrated for the first time.
Agent-based modeling represents a group of customers as “agents,” or independent decision-making entities that are trained based on data to simulate decisions made on behalf of the people they represent. NREL’s study modeled four agents: PV owners, installers, recyclers, and manufacturers. Agents choose to repair, reuse, recycle, landfill, or store an aging PV module under different scenarios, like varying recycling costs or policies.