Solar photovoltaics (PV) has emerged as one of the world’s most promising power-generation technologies, and it is essential to assess its applications from the perspective of a material-energy-water (MEW) nexus. We performed a life cycle assessment of the cradle-to-grave MEW for single-crystalline silicon (s-Si) and CdTe PV technologies by assuming both PV systems are recycled at end of life. We found that the MEW network was dominated by energy flows (>95%), while only minor impacts of materials and water flows were observed. Also, these MEW flows have pyramid-like distributions between the three tiers (i.e., primary, secondary/sub-secondary, and tertiary levels), with greater flows at the primary and lower flows at the tertiary levels. A more detailed analysis of materials’ circularity showed that glass layers are the most impactful component of recycling due to their considerable weight in both technologies. Our analysis also emphasized the positive impacts that increased power-conversion efficiency and the use of recycled feedstock have on the PV industry’s circularity rates. We found that a 25% increase in power-conversion efficiency and the use of fully recycled materials in PV panel feedstocks resulted in 91% and 86% material circularity for CdTe and s-Si PV systems, respectively.
Photovoltaic Systems through the Lens of Material-Energy-Water Nexus