The apparent abundance and efficiency of fossil fuels revolutionized our energy systems. Research had yet to confirm environmental, health and economic risks, and even when it had, communication was poor. This lack of foresight has led us to the current, established system that resists change despite confirmed harm — sacrificial zones, energy poverty, ecological catastrophe, global warming and climate crisis. Fossil fuels catalyzed the Second Industrial Revolution at the expense of countless communities and regions around the world.
Unsurprisingly, it was the threat of scarcity rather than environmental and ethical issues that started pushing us away from fossil fuels. Research into alternative energy accelerated, with solar as one of the most attractive candidates due to abundant solar irradiance, though this can be limited as there are only so many hours in a day. Moreover, the process of fabricating a solar cell is incredibly material and energy intensive, and there are limited resources on Earth. What do we do once we’ve extracted it all? What do we do when we’re left with nonfunctional solar cells? Experts predict that we would generate 78 million metric tons of photovoltaic waste by 2050 under our current system. It is critical that we consider the full lifetime of a solar cell — from the harvesting of raw materials to methods of waste management. There are limited natural resources on Earth. Confronting this unsettling reality demands the development of more efficient and widely applicable methods to repurpose, remanufacture and recycle materials necessary to renewable energy sources. Namely, a circular economy of energy.
The circular economy model first became popular in the 1970s and has since been championed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-based charity that promotes and funds circular economy advancements. The current global economy runs in a linear fashion: production, use, waste. A linear economy depletes Earth’s raw resources and generates massive waste, a model that is no longer sustainable. In contrast, a circular economy keeps all raw materials within the economy through repair, refurbishment, remanufacture and recycling. Consider a cell phone in a circular economy: Repair would constitute customer care such as replacing the battery; refurbishment would require the manufacturer to replace parts like the screen or camera; remanufacture would take the phone apart to install new hardware; recycling would take the phone apart completely to extract individual materials, such as precious metals, wiring and plastics. Our current economy does not significantly include any of these pathways except recycling. But taking apart products completely is wasteful, needless and energy intensive. Furthermore, recycling in the U.S. is declining since exporting waste is no longer an option and no cost-effective domestic alternatives exist. Radical action is needed to establish a true circular economy. It’s the only way to sustainably minimize waste.
These same principles must be applied to energy systems. Currently, silicon solar cells dominate 90 percent of the solar cell industry. Yet, while silicon is the second most abundant element on Earth, it remains a limited and problematic candidate for solar cell materials. Modern solar cell advancements rely on new materials with better electronic properties but potentially more hazardous materials. Perovskite solar cells, for example, have skyrocketed in efficiencies but often contain lead and other potentially hazardous materials. These hazardous materials demand multiple extractions, refinement and a lengthy period of transportation. These processes elevate the initial carbon footprint of producing solar cells. Furthermore, relying on trace materials has the potential to make us vulnerable to scarcity. Regardless of what material is used for our solar cells, circular economy principles will be key to designing a system that lasts.
Fossil fuels are an empire built on unethical, unsustainable practices that become impossible to correct as the empire grows. Thus, it is critical to investigate sourcing and waste management before committing to a new system. Our desperation to escape disastrous climate change by ditching fossil fuels has the potential to make us reckless and vulnerable. We must hold our industries, scientists, policymakers and energy companies accountable for answering the following questions: How are we mitigating exploitation, emissions and waste? Where will the energy be produced and maintained? How will it affect and support all communities? These are not trivial questions that are far we can ignore while consuming seemingly limitless, cheap, consequence-free energy.
Solar irradiance may be infinite, but the raw materials needed to capture it are not. We cannot continue down a linear economy model, consuming raw materials and producing solar cell waste. There is no future in a linear economy. We must confront resource scarcity and waste generation by demanding a circular economy. Solar cells could make up a sustainable energy system, but they could also become the next fossil fuel disaster. No energy system under a linear economy can succeed.
Desi Dikova is a senior studying chemistry and minoring in energy science and policy.