Funded by the SEP of NSF

Sustainability Assessment of the New Technology and Products of PV Systems
Thrust # 2 for
Earth-Abundant Thin-Film Solar Cells as a Sustainable Solar Energy Pathway

The majority of the 15 terawatts (1012 W) of new power needed across the globe by 2050 must come from CO2 –free sources.  Solar photovoltaic electricity technology is considered one of the top choices to meet this need, but must be made sustainable from economic, environmental, and societal perspectives.  Our objective is to develop the concepts, materials, and processes necessary to economically produce environmentally friendly thin-film solar cells from earth-abundant, environmentally benign (EAEB) materials. We have assembled a multi-disciplinary team representing the disciplines of physics, materials science, engineering, chemistry, socioeconomics, environmental science, and education to address these complex issues. To create an Sustainable Energy Pathway (SEP based on solar energy generated by EAEB materials, we will integrate systematic sustainability analyses that include: (1) quantification of the environmental and societal impacts, (2) identification of economically viable directions, and (3) comprehensive education and outreach activities. These goals will be achieved through: Thrust 1: Scientific and technology innovation in earth-abundant, thin-film solar cells; Thrust 2: Sustainability assessment of the new technology and products; and Thrust 3: Education, Outreach, and Technology Transfer (E.O.T.T.) of the new technology and products may introduce added costs to a particular solar cell technology.


We will systematically analyze the sustainability of our new solar cell systems and manufacturing process through life cycle sustainability assessments (LCSA) of viable environmental, economic, and sociopolitical (EES) measures. We will develop and implement a dynamic, reiterative working flowchart where different scenarios will be re-iteratively generated and assessed by our research team and the stakeholders of PV systems, followed by a sound, integrated LCSA and structural equation modeling (SEM) framework. To address education/workforce development, we will target critical educational goals for students at all levels. Seven doctoral and six undergraduate students will be supported by this project each year.  These students will have a primary faculty advisor but be advised by a group of faculty in each thrust area. This approach will further reinforce synergy, broaden educational goals, and build a true team philosophy.


This project will yield at least two scientific impacts: (1) a thorough understanding of the fundamental science and engineering issues that are critical for realizing economically viable, environmentally benign, earth-abundant solar cells, and (2) new paradigms for science and education in renewable energy and, specifically, sustainable solar photovoltaics.  As an outgrowth, we expect to develop an understanding of environmental, societal, and economic issues so that recommendations can be made to ensure that earth-abundant solar cell technologies will lead to a sustainable solar energy pathway. The proposed approach will be broadly and transformatively applicable in assessing the sustainability of other solar cell technologies and manufacturing processes as well as other renewable energy pathways.