The PHOTORAMA consortium is made up of a team of several organizations, all bringing their specific expertise to the project. We have asked Nicolas Defrenne from SOREN to tell us more about what their role has been so far in PHOTORAMA.
Hello Nicolas, thanks a lot for taking the time to chat with us today. Can you shortly introduce your organization, your team and explain its role in PHOTORAMA?
Soren is a French producer-responsibility organization of photovoltaic modules. As such, we collect & recycle PV modules all over France (mainland & Overseas Territories). Soren believes that High-Value recycling is cheaper [than current modes of recycling], but it is cheaper in the long term. That means, of course, if you want to invest to develop a new technology to innovate, it is more expensive at first. But this is the strategy of Soren.
Soren’s team working on PHOTORAMA is composed of Anaïs Gouabault, the operations and technical manager, Juan Alzate, Engineer, and myself, who is the managing director of Soren.
What are you currently working on? What is happening now?
In PHOTORAMA, we wrote the methodology of PV characterization and are working on the exploitation of results. An important question is how to measure recycling targets. In Europe, there are common targets for recycling but there is no common methodology to calculate it. This makes its difficult to compare [recycling] performance between countries. There is data available on Eurostat, but since each country uses different calculation methods, no meaningful comparison is possible.
Our ultimate goal is to have a common European methodology, so in our work in PHOTORAMA, we developed and proposed a new common methodology.
This new methodology will be uploaded to ZENODO to be available to all under Open Access. We are also open to suggestions.
What does your specific expertise add to the consortium?
Soren is (essentially) a customer of the technology of PHOTORAMA and an expert on French and European policies for Photovoltaic recycling. So we have a broad market vision and a long-term perspective to develop something that goes further than just solving the technical issue. Our experience in this role is to provide insight into what kind of technology we expect from our partners.
Why, according to you, do we need a project like PHOTORAMA?
For us, the main goal of PHOTORAMA is to support the development of high-value recycling processes dedicated to photovoltaic modules. What PHOTORAMA does, is to expand recycling to about 80-90% of the value.
Today, the EU has recycling targets based on weight but not on raw material value of critical raw materials. That is not to say quantity is not important, obviously, we should set ourselves ambitious targets, but it doesn’t make sense to spend so much effort into recycling low-value materials. We need to focus on the critical raw materials. When you look at how recycling is done in most countries in Europe, it is focused on recovering aluminum, glass, and copper. This method achieves European weight target but it is “low-cost” recycling. It is easier to implement and requires lower investment and not so much know-how. But if you only focus on these materials, the basis on which you recycle is only 40% of the raw material value of the complete new module. It may be cheap in the short term, but if we want to create a circular economy, then we need to create value.
Take Silver (Ag) for example, it is 0.08% of the weight of the PV module on average. And if I look at the current recycling targets, why should I care about Silver? However, Silver is 20% of the raw material value compared to 0.08% of the weight. Same with Silicon: it is 8% of the weight but 40% of the value.
Europe also has a lot of resources in its waste and recycling is a new way to produce resources. So it is not just treating waste, we are producing resources. It is better to avoid mining if we can, as that is where the biggest environmental footprint is, and to have raw materials that are in line with our ethics & values. When you look at how much silver we need to produce 1 gigawatt of PV module with current technology, it is 29,000 tonnes. It is 94% of the world’s production of Silver. So, to achieve the Energy Transition, there are not enough raw materials. Maybe we will find new ones, but this requires extraction. One of the major things, if we want to reduce the environmental footprint of our production, is to reduce extractivism.
In 2022, there was a solar global supply chain report from the IEA which says that by 2040/50, if we [high-value] recycle PV modules, it can make up for 20% of Aluminum, Copper, and Silicon consumption and 70% of Silver consumption. If we want to achieve an energy transition, then the circular economy is not an option –it is a n necessity. In the short term, it will be a little bit more expensive, but we won’t be wasting silver and other materials that Europe needs. This year, it became crystal clear for everyone, Europe needs more sovereignty for itself, to protect itself. For instance, look at aluminum. 70% of the world’s production comes from Russia/Ukraine.
So, PHOTORAMA is not the solution to everything but it is helping with the problem. That is why it is important if we want to have raw materials that are in line with our values and to help secure European sovereignty.
What is the biggest challenge to bring upon PV circularity?
To change the paradigm [of recycling] from one that prioritizes low-value into one that prioritizes high-value recycling. Generally, even if one firm wants to do high-value recycling, it will not be able to compete with low-cost-oriented competitors. It is a prisoner’s dilemma: we all benefit from high value, but as long as there are some people who do low cost, they are holding everyone down. So, the only way to go further from this is to have targets for recovery rates of critical raw materials that are value-based instead of quantity-based. It also goes hand in hand with the EU Fit for 55 policies.
What would you like to have achieved at your scale by the end of the project?
Change people’s mindset. Get people to understand and trust that high value recycling is ultimately cheaper [in the long run] and worth investing in!
Thank you Nicolas for this overview of Soren’s work in PHOTORAMA!