This Spartan engineer is analyzing how we make, implement and dispose of solar cells to make sure consumers end up with the most sustainable product
Michigan State University’s Annick Anctil’s goal may sound surprising, even counterintuitive. After all, solar energy is sustainable, so — by definition — it’s green, right?
“Solar energy is green, but it’s not all green,” says Anctil, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “The ultimate goal of this project is to make solar even greener.”
It turns out, not every solar panel is created equal and installing solar panels isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Some panels use scarce resources. Others might leach hazardous chemicals into the environment. And some are better suited for certain locations than others.
“If you take a solar panel and install it in Michigan, then install the same kind in Arizona, they’re not going to perform the same,” says Anctil. “They won’t have the same environmental benefits.”
With the support of a 2021 National Science Foundation CAREER award, Anctil and her team are showing how different solar panels affect society and the environment. By auditing the lifecycle of different solar technologies — from manufacturing to installation to operation and, ultimately, to disposal — the team is working to inform consumers, companies and policymakers wanting to make the most out of solar.
“Education isn’t just what I do in class. I can work with the public and get all this information out,” says Anctil, who’s collaborating with Michigan Institute for Energy Innovation and Michigan’s Hemlock Semiconductor, the largest silicon producer in the United States. This helps her connect directly with the people making and installing solar energy systems — and looking to do so more sustainably.
“I’m a researcher who likes to work with people and to be connected,” she says. “A lot of my research questions are guided by the questions I hear people ask.”
As a researcher, Anctil has always been interested in renewable energy. She started studying solar technologies as a graduate student, taking on projects to increase the efficiency of solar cells. But she realized that when the focus is on making the best possible solar cell, researchers may not be fully attuned to the consequences of their choices.
“If you get better performance out of the solar cell, but it uses a scarce or toxic material, you haven’t necessarily made anything better,” she says. “The solar cell may work better, but you’ve also created a new problem.”
For example, silicon solar cells are made from sand, which is much scarcer than many people realize. Solar cells can also be made using hazardous chemicals. So understanding what happens to solar cells and their contents at the end of their lives is also important, especially if the panels aren’t covered by take-back or recycling programs.
That’s why Anctil is working to determine how sustainable any given solar cell is, across the many phases of its lifecycle. And MSU has proven to be a place that values this holistic thinking. “At MSU, there is a lot of interest in sustainability,” Anctil says. “And it’s not just in one department, it’s across the university.”
Note: Annick Anctil is a faculty member in the College of Engineering.