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How Can We Scale Up Renewables? Next-generation PV Cells May Be an Option

Abt study examines the sustainability of CIGS photovoltaic cells

Solar panelsDespite increased interest in and use of renewable energy sources, it’s not easy to create and expand solar technologies that cost less, are more reliable, and are more efficient.
Next generation CIGS (copper indium gallium (di)selenide) photovoltaic cells (PV) cells are helping to overcome this challenge. In “Life Cycle Assessment of Photovoltaic Manufacturing Consortium Copper Indium Gallium (di)selenide (CIGS) Modules,” published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, Abt Global’s Shanika Amarakoon, Cyril Vallet, and partnering authors assessed thin-film solar cells made from copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS). Before the technology is produced at a larger scale, the study provides needed insight on the human and environmental impacts these cells may have if manufactured at a larger scale in order to produce the technology in a more sustainably.
“To go to scale,” said Amarakoon, “the market needs to expand. This study offers insight for solar manufacturers who are trying to produce PV cells more sustainably.”

More Options with Sustainable Materials

The study found that in comparison to earlier life cycle assessments on more traditional thin-film cells – such as those using silicon and cadmium – the CIGS PV cells have lower global warming impacts. This is due in part to the use of a stainless steel substrate instead of the more commonly used glass substrate, and that they are manufactured at a facility in New York that relies on a renewable-based energy grid. Additional benefits include lighter weight plastics in the CIGS PV that further reduce the amount of mounting structure needed to secure CIGS PV systems on rooftops.
Additionally, the study identified silver as a key driver of human health and other environmental impacts.  As a result, the article examines several alternatives, including an Integrated Cell Interconnect system that can reduce the amount of silver needed for the PV cells, thereby reducing the associated impacts. The study also identified several additional opportunities to reduce the impacts of the cells, including recycling additional waste materials and substituting recycled metals for virgin materials.
While these results are encouraging, future studies are needed to assess CIGS technology – particularly at the end of its useful life,” said Amarakoon.
“It’s an emerging and growing technology and this study is a benchmark for future PV research,” she said.

Read the article.

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