Gener8 – the first truly sustainable solar panels

By Cécile,
on 19 April 2017

Here’s a question: do you consider solar panels sustainable? Most people see solar panels as a picture of sustainability, but, as you can already guess, we don’t. Or rather, not yet – because many solar panels are simply discarded after use. To come up with a solution, three years ago, we started a project called Gener8. In this series of blogs, we’ll be taking you along on our journey to develop circular panels, while we present our dream: a completely new system in which we can pay with energy. Are you critical of this approach, or interested to find out more? Read on!

Blog #1 – the start of Gener8… Solar panels are a great way to generate renewable energy, but they are far too difficult to recycle.

Due to the way the panels are made, reuse of materials or components is almost impossible, and many materials are lost. In addition, the amount of solar energy being generated has expanded exponentially in recent years. This is something we are obviously very happy about,but it also brings a disadvantage: over several years we will dismantle and process large numbers of solar panels, creating a huge mountain of waste without an immediate solution.

chart energy materials

In addition to solving the problem we’re facing, we should also prevent this problem from growing. The solar panels that are now being developed and manufactured must be reusable after their lifespan. In view of rising prices of raw materials, this is also simply smart – economically and geopolitically: the more raw materials you can keep reusing, the less you need to import.

With all this in mind, we started our project Gener8 two years ago.

It began with a vision: by looking at the energy generated and the materials that are being (re)used, we saw the opportunity to make the world’s first ‘positive impact products’ – solar panels that generate more energy than is needed to produce them, and process those same panels without losing any materials.

Resources circle and energy circle

Since then, a lot has happened. We have teamed up with other parties that could help us with all the relevant areas of expertise, from producers to waste processors, knowledge institutions and everything in between. We have spoken with investors, submitted a grant application and considered crowdfunding the construction of the first circular panel. In the end we encountered many barriers and, unfortunately, there is still no circular panel. However, what we do have is a huge amount of knowledge we would like to share with as many people as possible – and the belief that this concept is technically and financially feasible.

We don’t need a technical solution, we need a new system

In order to produce a circular panel, we do not need a new technology breakthrough; technically, we can already do it. The problem is we don’t do it. Why is it not happening yet? The short answer is that while it may be in the long-term interest of the entire chain, it is not in the interests of individual parties in the short term.

“… while it may be in the long-term interest of the entire chain, it is not in the interests of individual parties in the short term.”

Here’s an example: designing a circular panel costs more time and money than designing a panel optimized for efficiency and longevity. The profit of a circular panel will only be achieved at the end of its life cycle – after disassembly and reuse. But the party responsible for the production and design of the panel is not the same as the one involved in its disassembly and reuse. Costs and benefits, therefore, occur in several places and at various moments in the chain. In addition, the technical lifespan of an ordinary panel is 20 years, or even 40 years for a high-grade panel. An investment made in the circularity of a panel may therefore only pay back after 40 years.

Our solution: a new form of intensive cooperation. This is not a new technical solution, but a collaboration between chain partners: a new ‘system’. We think we have found a way to organize the interests of all the parties involved so that all costs, and especially all benefits, can be evenly distributed. Over the last two years, we have connected many partners with this vision. ECN, the port of Rotterdam, WEELEC, Exasun and Urban Mining Corp were willing to see if we could create this system together. By bringing together the interests of these parties, we could put on paper the solution for the circular panels we had dreamed of.

The investors we spoke to indicated, without exception, that the phase our project was in did not lend itself to their capital: we had no working prototype, no guarantee of the sales market and thus no guarantee of a return. This meant too much risk for them. We therefore decided to submit a grant application at the end of 2016, the purpose of which was twofold: proving that the market could be circularly arranged and setting up a recycling process that could recover high percentages of materials from existing solar panels. Unfortunately, we were not awarded the grant in the end; the conclusion was that our idea was not innovative enough technically. We agree with this conclusion, but that’s also our point: technological innovation is not the prerequisite for developing our dream system… it is about system renewal.

What now?

We still believe in the strength of our concept. Of course, there are practical objections and challenges, but in the long run we visualize a system that could work much more positively than our current energy landscape. Decentralized renewable energy, without (or with minimal) consumption of materials and rare raw materials. Maybe even a system in which we pay with the energy we generate ourselves.

In the next few blogs we’ll take you step by step through our vision, our project, our dream and the lessons we have learned.

So we’ll be taking you along on our journey to develop circular panels, while we present our dream: a completely new system in which we can pay with energy. The structure is as follows:

Blog #1Introduction to Gener8Welke fases hebben wij doorlopen, en waar staan we nu?
Blog #2Explanation of our conceptThis post is more technical: we want to explain that we not only have the conviction but can also provide the numbers to support it.
Blogs #3, #4 en #5Elaboration of our initiative in several ‘concepts’From the perspective of a user, the government and an investor, we make the image of our future concrete.
Blog #6Lessons learnedWhat did we encounter, what do we still need to solve and what went well?

Interested, inspired or willing to think further?

We would like to hear from you! We want to share this knowledge to help each other. Are you working on a project that’s in line with this initiative? Do you want more information, or maybe you want to spar over this concept? Get in touch!

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