The sun offers an endless source of energy, but solar technology is held back by production limitations, says Dutch scientist and professor Wim C Sinke in this interview.
Speaking to Dezeen as part of our Solar Revolution series, Sinke said the embodied carbon involved in solar product manufacturing is currently a barrier to scaling the technology.
“It’s a process that takes a lot of energy”
“There is no limitation [to solar power] if you do everything perfectly – if you use the right materials and introduce circular technology,” he said.
“But we can’t do that, so there are limitations, especially if we want to expand the sector quickly.”
Until his retirement in May 2022, Sinke was chief scientist at TNO and professor of photovoltaic energy conversion at the University of Amsterdam.
He spoke with Dezeen in response to a presentation during The Solar Seminar, a solar design conference that took place on 9 September at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam as part of The Solar Biennale.
The scientist said the energy and materials needed to make solar cells is one of the biggest obstacles in the ambition to increase solar energy production.
Most photovoltaic cells are made of silicon, a material that is abundant in the Earth’s crust, but which must be heavily processed for this purpose.
“It’s a process that requires a lot of energy, and if that energy isn’t renewable, there’s carbon emissions associated with it,” Sinke explains.
“The climate payback of a solar panel may only be a few years, but if you expand quickly, that value can still be significant.”
Switching to a circular economy necessary
Another problem, Sinke says, is that many of the other materials needed to manufacture solar products are only available in limited quantities.
“For example, the high-quality glass used for solar panels is not available in the quantities we need to quickly grow the industry immediately,” he said.
Sinke believes that a switch to a circular economy – where the components of old solar products are recycled at the end of their life – is necessary to grow the solar industry.
One way to achieve this shift, he argues, is to find a way to replace the silver components in photovoltaic panels — which help optimize power generation — with aluminum.
Although it takes a lot of energy to make aluminum, it is the easiest metal to recycle.
“If we want to build an industry sector that produces solar panels in a sustainable way, we need to make the entire value chain, from raw materials to the complete systems, work in a circular way,” Sinke said.
‘We cannot afford to wait decades’
Sinke has spent decades researching solar photovoltaics and developing solutions. He was knighted in 2015 for his achievements in the field.
He believes that a solar revolution is possible, but only if the life cycle of solar products is urgently rethought at a systemic level.
“It’s not too late,” he said. “We can solve the problems we face, but we need to make a huge, focused effort to make it happen.”
“We cannot afford to wait decades,” he continued. “We can build production capacity in a few years, but society needs to be convinced of its importance.”
The photography is by Lindy Hengst.
This article is part of Dezeen’s Solar Revolution series, which explores the diverse and exciting potential uses of solar energy and how humans can fully harness the incredible power of the sun.