MRS Bulletin

Energy & Water

Sustainability metrics for extending thin-film photovoltaics to terawatt levels

Vasilis Fthenakisa1

a1 Brookhaven National Laboratory and Columbia University;


Over the past 12 years, photovoltaics enjoyed an average growth of ∼45% per year that was affected only marginally by the recent global financial crisis. Industrial roadmaps and analysts’ forecasts share visions of solar power becoming a major contributor to national and global electricity grids, with several terawatts of cumulative deployment by 2050 or earlier. For photovoltaics technology to become a major sustainable player in a competitive power-generation market, it must provide abundant, affordable electricity, with environmental impacts dramatically lower than those from conventional power generation. This article summarizes the prospects in each of three basic aspects of sustainability, namely, system costs, environmental impacts, and resource availability, all of which are examined in the context of prospective life-cycle assessment. Indeed, these three aspects are closely related: Increasing the efficiency of material recovery by recycling spent modules will become increasingly important in resolving cost, resource, and environmental constraints on large-scale sustainable growth.

(Online publication April 09 2012)

Key Words:

  • Sustainability/sustainable development;
  • Recycle/recycling;
  • Te;
  • In;
  • Ga;
  • Ge;
  • Thin film