The Global Solar Energy market was worth $90 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach a market size value of $198 billion by 2028. Meanwhile, the plastic industry reached a market size value of $627 billion in 2023 and shows no signs of slowing down.
These two industries might seem worlds apart when it comes to sustainability, but they have a lot more in common than you think.
What is Plastic?
Plastic is a man-made material that uses polymer as its main ingredient. This material is easily shaped and molded into various shapes and forms, often with the help of hot runner products. Additives can be added to plastics resulting in a wide range of products that have diverse applications across the majority of modern industries.
Plastic Use in the Solar Industry
One of the industries that benefits from the versatility of this synthetic material is the solar energy industry. Plastic plays a huge part in solar energy installations and further research is being made about its many potential applications.
Specifically, plastic is used to protect sensitive photovoltaic (PV) cells from exposure to the elements. On its own, PV cells are very fragile and thus need to be encased in a protective sheathing to withstand outdoor conditions for a long time. Plastic provides the durability and plasticity required for this which makes it a crucial component in creating solar panels.
Traditionally, glass is predominantly used to make solar panels but thanks to new developments in plastic technology, plastic can now replace most of the glass components resulting in solar panels that are lightweight and easier to install in trickier roof areas.
Plastics are also used in other domains of creating solar energy. They act as insulators, form essential components like pipes, valves, and fittings, and crucially, facilitate the conduction of electricity both in the grid and in residential settings.
Plastic Solar Cells
The most recent breakthrough in renewable energy research is organic photovoltaics or plastic solar cells. This technology taps into the power of plastic when used as semiconductors, not just insulators. Plastic solar cells can be more efficient than their silicon-based counterparts and have the potential to “provide Earth-abundant and low-energy-production photovoltaic (PV) solution”, according to the Department of Energy.
It’s worth noting that plastic solar cell research is still in its infancy and will not be able to serve as a mature alternative to silicon solar cells anytime soon. But it’s worth noting that the industry valued at 2.4 million (USD) in 2018 is projected to be worth 386 million (USD) in 2026. And just this June 2023, researchers have been able to achieve a power-conversion efficiency (PVE) of 19.31% with plastic solar cells — a phenomenal breakthrough that proves it can rival the PVE of crystalline silicon PV cells which currently achieve efficiencies of 18%–22% under standard test conditions.
Material Recycling for End-of-Life Solar Panels
Photovoltaic energy production has matured in the last few decades and has become a popular means of generating power. In 2021, solar technology produced 13% of all electricity generated from renewables.
This statistic could change soon as global PV generation capacity continues to increase. The year 2017 was especially big for large-scale PV installations when the installed capacity of solar almost doubled! Solar companies can expect to get more solar leads as homeowners begin to prioritize sustainable investments.
Accounting company BDO Global predicts the future to be bright for renewables. According to their forecast, almost 33% of the world’s electricity will be generated from renewable sources by 2024 with solar PV generation accounting for 60% of the expected growth.
That said, there’s a growing concern about how to manage the potentially hazardous waste from end-of-life PV panels. A typical solar panel lasts for about 25 years on average. Some 9.57 million tonnes of PV panels will reach their end-of-life by 2050.
Presently, there are three types of recycling processes applied to solar PV panels: physical, thermal, and chemical. Even so, successful large-scale recycling will require a collective effort from both the public and private sectors.
Solar Technology and Plastic Waste
Solar energy strives to offer sustainable energy solutions for multiple industries. Fortunately, significant progress has been made in the push for sustainability. Just this year, researchers from the University of Cambridge discovered a method for converting carbon dioxide and plastic waste into clean fuel using solar power.
A range of sustainable solutions have also been proposed for addressing the plastic waste crisis. This includes:
- using solar power to power plastic recycling plants
- deploying solar-powered recycling units to areas where access to electricity is limited
- using solar power to power garbage trucks that collect plastic waste
- using solar power for desalination facilities that turn sea water into fresh water for various purposes
- using solar power for manufacturing processes in the electric industry to reduce the carbon footprint associated with plastic production
- using solar power in transforming plastic waste into other valuable materials
The future holds great promise if stakeholders are committed to fulfilling their share of the responsibility in pursuit of sustainable energy solutions.