Feb. 8, 2021

Annick Anctil to research impact of solar photovoltaics industry in U.S.

A civil and environmental engineering researcher at Michigan State University will use a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award to evaluate the environmental impact of the solar photovoltaics (PV) industry around the country.

Assistant Professor Annick Anctil has received the 27th NSF CAREER Award in the college since 2010.
Assistant Professor Annick Anctil has received the 14th NSF CAREER Award in the college in the past three years.

Assistant Professor Annick Anctil will use her $436,000 grant to evaluate the impact of technology change, economics, and policy on the environmental impact of solar PV over time in the U.S. She will focus on the material content, toxicity, and recyclability of current and future PV technologies.  Life cycle assessment will be used to evaluate the environmental and cost impact of manufacturing, installing and recycling solar PV in the U.S. 

The five-year project begins in May 2021.

Anctil said solar photovoltaics have transitioned from a niche market to the fastest growing electricity technology in the U.S.

“The price to install PV is going down and the annual gigawatt capacity is going up,” she explained. “PV installation costs have decreased by more than 70 percent in the last decade, causing annual capacity additions to increase by 49 percent every year.”

Concurrently, the PV industry is experiencing multiple bankruptcies, a shift in manufacturing from Europe to China, the multiplication in PV module technologies, and changing economic incentives and policies.

“All of these factors have affected PV systems design,” she continued. “We already know that the average lifetime of modules has been overestimated and so has their environmental benefit.

Massive heliostats at the Crescent Dunes concentrating solar power plant in Tonopah, Nevada. (Courtesy: DOE)
Massive heliostats welcome sunrise at the Crescent Dunes concentrating solar power plant in Tonopah, Nevada. (Courtesy: U.S. Department of Energy)

“We’ll look at a number of influences – that early module retirement can create a market for second-life PV modules; the composition and toxicity of PV modules has changed in the last decade; and the value of PV modules is decreasing over time while complexity is increasing and driving up the recycling costs.”

She said an integrative simulation model will help anticipate the various combined effects on the PV industry. Her goal is also to create an educational simulation tool for sustainability education that can help train skilled engineers to work in the energy sector.

“Our objectives represent important steps toward sustainable solar technologies through a comprehensive analysis of current and future PV technologies. It seeks to provide insight on the combined impact of technology, policy, use, recycling, and disposal of PV in the U.S.,” she added.

Anctil joined MSU in 2014. An award-winning faculty member, she received a Withrow Teaching Excellence Award for demonstrated excellence and distinguished contributions to civil and environmental engineering students in 2020. The core of her research is on evaluating the environmental impact of photovoltaics technologies. In addition to solar, she currently works on projects related to battery storage, wind energy, energy for irrigation, and plastic recycling.

She received a PhD in sustainability from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Anctil is the 14th faculty member in the College of Engineering to receive an NSF CAREER Award in the past three years. NSF CAREER Awards support junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research and education. It is among NSF’s most prestigious honors.

Read more on her NSF research here.