On June 28th 2021, in collaboration with Utrecht Sustainability Institute, Amsterdam Economic Board, the City of Amsterdam and Alliance Circle Region Utrecht - we organized the 24th session for the Circular Economy Lab, especially focussed on circular solar panels.

Amsterdam’s Deputy Mayor: why circular solar panels are crucial
The Lab kicked-off with a video message from Marieke van Doorninck, Deputy Mayor for Spatial Development and Sustainability of the City of Amsterdam. The Deputy Mayor among others stated that the next crucial step is to make solar panels circular on a large scale, to prevent toxic PV waste, keep critical raw materials available and prevent forced labor in the production chain in China.

Opening of the Circular Economy Lab by Marieke van Doorninck, Deputy Mayor for Spatial Development and Sustainability of the City of Amsterdam

“The International Renewable Energy Agency recently estimated that globally at least 60.000.000 tonnes of solar panels will have reached the end of their lifespan by 2050. How can we prepare for this flood of used solar panels that will enter the market?”

Joppe van Driel

Program Developer Circularity in Urban Regions

The number of solar panels installed in Amsterdam is increasing every year. At the same time, many resources are required for the production of solar panels. This raises questions such as:

What reuse and recycling options are already available for the stream of used solar panels? What innovative solar panels are currently being developed that meet much higher standards in terms of design, sustainability and circularity? And how can we get these circular solar panels on the market on a large scale?

During Circular Economy Lab, together with frontrunners from science, industry and government, we talked about the importance of circularity of solar panels, discussed current applications for recycling and refurbishment, and identified some concrete opportunities to accelerate circularity for solar panels.

Time for a wrap up on this inspiring event!

You can watch the full event here below. This event is in Dutch, so this news article provides a quick overview of the event in English.

Download the full recap here in Dutch >>

Circular Economy Lab 24 | Circulaire zonnepanelen

“Resources are becoming more expensive because of increased demand. We should start developing high quality recycling technology so we can reuse all the raw materials of used solar panels. In addition, we also need to look at material efficiency – using as few materials and toxic substances as possible.”

Arthur Weeber | TU Delft / TNO

What is the current state of circularity of solar panels?
In the current market, the economic lifecycle of solar panels is reached after 15-20 years, and the number of discarded solar panels is expected to reach a peak around 2026. With Geert Jan Pastoor (Pastoor Consult), Arthur Weeber (TU Delft/TNO), Reint Sekhuis (WEEE NL), and Maartje van Engelen (Sungevity), we discussed the possibilities to refurbish and recycle and financing of solar panels.

“Currently, there are only a few actors in the whole of Europe who focus on solar panel recycling. And often recycling focuses on the base metals: the aluminum frame and glass. With that, we are now losing the materials such as silicon, silver and critical metals.”

Reint Sekhuis | WEEE NL

A factory for refurbishment and recycling
Geert Jan Pastoor introduced an initiative to set up a factory for refurbishment and high quality recycling of end-of-life solar panels in Amsterdam. In the factory, written off panels that are still good enough will be certified and can get a second life. Panels that are not good enough anymore will be recycled: from the aluminum, glass, plastic to the silicon, silver and other metals to serve as a circular feedstock for new panels.

ZonNext: a platform to match supply and demand of used panels
At the moment, structural reuse of released solar panels is not happening. The process to get used solar panels from the roof of the provider to the roof of the buyer (including logistics, storage, repair, recertification, installation) has not yet been arranged.

To change this, Sungevity – in collaboration with among others WEEE Nederland and Urgenda – recently launched a platform called ZonNext.

“As a PV supplier we want to take responsibility and create circular solutions. ZonNext is a platform to match supply and demand of used solar panels. For example, when a building with solar panels is demolished; the panels are released and made available to households with energy poverty.”

Maartje van Engelen | Sungevity

How to make solar panels fully circular?
Next to existing applications, several examples were presented that help accelerate circularity of solar panels in the (near) future. For example, Gerard de Leede (Solarge) presented his business model for circular, ultra-low carbon PV panels, Jan-Jaap van Os (Exasun) explained about a solar panel that replaces a roof tile, and Rosaline Klein (Wocozon) together with Eveline Roubus (City of Amsterdam) discussed the possibility of leasing solar panels to stimulate circular business models or other financing models such as collective purchasing.

“At this moment, high-quality recycling of solar panels is difficult because of how they were designed: we have made every effort to pack and glue all the components in a panel together, to ensure the longest possible lifespan. However, the future lies in circular design: solar panels that can be taken apart easily while maintaining their long life.”

Arthur Weeber | TU Delft / TNO

Solarge: circular, ultra-low carbon PV panels
Solarge is working on circular innovations in solar PV in three ways. First, the company focuses on circular design by using more sustainable and less energy-intensive materials. Second, Solarge is working on design for recycling. After 'end of use', the PV modules can be easily thermally dismantled into (whole) solar cells and polymers, which can be continuously reused in the same type of solar panel. Third, Solarge is working with partners on a circular “energy-as-a-service” business model for solar PV.

“In our solar panels, glass and aluminum have been replaced by innovative fibre-reinforced plastics. This panel can last at least 25 years, is very light weight and has a low CO2 footprint.”

Gerard de Leede | Solarge

Exasun: a circular solar panel that replaces roof tiles
Another example of a new generation of circular solar panels is the concept of Exasun. This company came to market in 2015 with a solar panel that had a minimum lifespan of 30 years. After this, Exasun started making them smaller, like a roof tile, and developed a solar panel that you can make waterproof roofs with. The next step was to get rid of toxic substances, such as lead, PFAS, and fluorine.

“The concrete industry is one of the largest emitters of CO2 worldwide. To illustrate: with our solar panels, you no longer need roof tiles. Also, for three years now we have been producing solar panels without lead and without PFAS. And, based on our design for recycling, we accomplished a true cradle-to-cradle solar panel.”

Jan-Jaap van Os | Exasun

What role can procurement play in accelerating circular solar panels?
Next to current applications and future innovations, during the event we discussed the role of procurement. One way to help scale up and accelerate these circular developments all panelists agreed on, is to include contractual requirements from procurement. Other options discussed were what if calculations by clients can be based on total cost of ownership? To ensure that service maintenance are costs are limited. Or can we boost circularity by having solar panels purchased 'as-a-service' through leasing models?

“We manage just under 1,000 properties of which we own 650. We already utilized the lowest hanging fruit – the larger roofs. Now, we’re looking for solutions for smaller roofs. With the numerous possibilities available, what is the most sustainable? How can we make this measurable so that we, as a purchasing party, can make a responsible choice?”

Eveline Roubos | Municipality of Amsterdam, municipal real estate

“We always try to convince our customers to look at the total lifetime cost. Often they only look at purchasing costs. Over the whole life cycle, cheaper offers are actually the more expensive offer, because parts have to be replaced very soon.”

Rosalinde Klein Woolthuis | Wocozon

Call for collective circular procurement of solar panels

At the end of the session, Jacqueline Cramer proposes to work together in the Metropolitan Region of Amsterdam. The municipality of Amsterdam can take a pioneering role to get governments on board, and the Amsterdam Economic Board can involve companies and knowledge institutions. Cirkelregio Utrecht, Zuid-Holland and other regions are welcome to join. Cramer stresses we need to work together.

“If we lay down the same circular contract requirements, the market will have a much clearer perspective and direction. We need to join forces when it comes to procurement. This way we can jointly push forward to creating a large market demand for circular solar panels. The techniques are already proven, we don't have to wait, we can start doing this and create volume.”

Jacqueline Cramer | Utrecht University

Want to share ideas or take part in this dialogue regarding circular solar panels?