Follow-up questions:
Three questions for the Bern University of Applied Sciences

We spoke to Ässia Boukhatmi, a doctoral student and research assistant at the Bern University of Applied Sciences and asked her three questions on photovoltaics.

Photovoltaics is experiencing strong growth in Switzerland. What are the major challenges?

Ässia Boukhatmi: The rise in new PV installations is also resulting in major challenges in managing the growing volumes of scrapped PV modules that end up in the waste stream at the end of their first life cycle. Forecasts indicate that the amount of PV waste generated in Switzerland will continue to surge. Up to 50 per cent of these modules would still be suitable for secondary use, but are often damaged due to improper handling after disassembly or are not sufficiently tested to qualify for an extended life cycle. These challenges are caused by insufficient data exchange between the different actors and phases of the PV module value chain in Switzerland. In addition to the problems that emerge at the end of the life cycle, it must still be taken into account that a large share of the PV modules installed in Europe is primarily imported from Asia and sold at unbeatable low prices. A non-transparent production chain and long transport routes mean that these modules are both environmentally and socially less sustainable than those of European manufacturers.

“The rise in new PV installations is also resulting in major challenges in managing the growing volumes of scrapped PV modules that end up in the waste stream at the end of their first life cycle.”

What do we need to do to take a crucial step forward in establishing a true circular economy in photovoltaics?

Ässia Boukhatmi: There are two key aspects that need to be taken into account here.  First, the stage must be set for establishing circular business models to enable the reuse of PV modules in Switzerland and make them more attractive to their customers. The necessary infrastructure must therefore be put in place, which includes proper disassembly and storage, testing for reuse and safe reinstallation. In the best case, these intermediate steps should be carried out in such a cost-efficient way that the prices of the second-life modules are ultimately lower than those of the new ones in order to be competitive on the secondary market.

In addition, this business model must be supported by the provision of information about the PV modules and their origin in order to make more efficient statements about the appropriate circular strategy (either reuse or recycling) already during the initial use. Information about the installation phase is critical to facilitate these estimates. Over the long term, PV modules should also be provided with a product passport in order to make all the information relevant for efficient end-of-life management accessible to stakeholders from the downstream value chain, such as recyclers.

Our team at BFH now wants to implement the project for establishing data-supported reuse in Switzerland in collaboration with SENS eRecycling, Swissolar and other partners in the solar industry, whereby the first step is to create the necessary business case and data basis for this.

How can I, as a consumer, help ensure that the development of photovoltaics in Switzerland is as sustainable as possible?

Ässia Boukhatmi: The most effective lever as a consumer is your decision to buy “sustainable” PV modules. Certifications confirm compliance of the supply chain and value retention of materials after their first use. In addition, some European manufacturers such as Meyer Burger, are positioning themselves with a more sustainable and transparent production and supply chain, including sourcing silicon from Europe and manufacturing PV modules with energy generated from renewable sources.

Another measure that consumers can take is to only have individual modules replaced and not the entire system in case of damage to the PV system, for example caused by hail. This prevents unnecessary PV waste and ensures that the systems are used as efficiently as possible.

We are still at the very beginning of the journey towards achieving a circular society in Switzerland. This makes it important for all stakeholders in the solar industry and consumers to pull together to drive the issue forward, taking into account all economic, ecological and social aspects. With our “SwissPVcircle” project, we would now like to take an important step together with SENS eRecycling and Swissolar to move closer to this vision.

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