Cadmium won’t be banned under RoHS, as lobbyists battle it out

The European Parliament has amended its restriction of hazardous substances (RoHS) directive. This law regulates the use of particular dangerous substances in electric powered and electronic devices sold in the EU. However, as MEPs in Strasbourg have now finally decided, the PV industry will continue to remain exempt from the guidelines. The European Parliament decided with 640 votes for the acceptance of a bill submitted by the EU Environment Committee about the RoHS amendment. Three MEPs voted against and twelve abstained.

The bill continues to except, on the proposal of MEP Chris Davies, all renewable energy technologies from the new rules. With this, above all the two companies First Solar and Calyxo can continue to manufacture their thin film modules on cadmium telluride bases: the existence of these companies would have been put in jeopardy if the EU had extended the cadmium ban of the RoHS amendment.

The guidelines must not impede the development of renewable energy technologies, given they apparently present no danger to the environment, as Davis’ amendment puts it. The RoHS amendment has to be in keeping with the climate goals of the EU and continue to facilitate the development of sustainable, economically developable energy forms. The new version of the RoHS guidelines still has to be formally approved by European Council. However, this approval can be counted as being very likely.

Lobby battle in Brussels

In the run-up to the decision, there was much hustle and bustle amongst the ranks of the lobbyists. The NTSA intervened massively on behalf of the extension of the cadmium ban to the PV industry. Lobbycontrol has shone a more precise light on the activities of the NTSA and published a dossier about them. This shows that the initiative was set in motion and directed by the Berlin lobby agency Kallmorgen and Partner.

To an external view, the NTSA attempts to present itself as a public interest initiative made up of scientists, solar companies and representatives of the civil society at large. Lobbycontrol has attempted to research the background to this. With this, Lobbycontrol, an imitative for transparency and democracy, determines that the financing of the NTSA is completely shrouded in mystery, just like the campaign’s instigator.

The NTSA, founded in December 2009 by co-workers of the Berlin lobby agency, had been sounding off to EU parliamentarians for months in favor of the extension of the RoHS amendment to the PV industry. With this, a variety of studies were commissioned that demonstrated the dangerousness of cadmium to people’s health. The NTSA has apparently presented itself in Brussels “like a lobby organization which, beneath the overcoat of a public service initiative, represents or wishes to represent the interests of segments of the solar industry – possibly with the goal of getting rid of unwanted competition, unwanted due to it being cheaply produced,” is the description of the dossier of Lobbycontrol.

For this reason, a connection to the large manufacturers of crystalline PV products is continually suspected. However, Lobbycontrol cannot actually prove this. The NTSA itself continually denies reports that it is financed by large solar companies. According to Lobbycontrol’s accounts, there are two rumors as to the funders in the background which refuse to go away. The first is that Frank Asbeck, founder and chairman of Solarworld AG, finances the NTSA out of his private fortune. An enquiry from Lobbycontrol to this effect was denied by the Bonn-based company.

The second is that a hedge fund is suspected to be behind the NTSA. “This hedge fund allegedly bet on the share collapse of the firm First Solar. In order to effect the collapse of their prices on the stock market, the fund apparently called the NTSA into life or at least supported it," continues the dossier. First Solar has always suspected behind the NSTA’s actions the targeted attacks of rivals on low-cost thin film competition. Last year, First Solar managed to bring production costs for thin film modules below the level of one dollar per watt of power. With this, thin film technology enjoys great price advantages in comparison with the manufacture of crystalline solar cells and modules.

The conclusion of Lobbycontrol is as follows: “What is certain that in its self-presentation, NTSA is leaving the public in a state of uncertainty as to its background and true goals. With this, it is violating ethical rules as well as the code of the Brussels lobby register." For its part, First Solar confesses to have in 2009 given out between €100,000 and €150,000 for lobbying purposes. According to reports, the PV company is also being represented by the law firm Kuhbier and is supported by the controversial PR agency Burson-Marsteller. As arguments for the safety of cadmium telluride module, First Solar points to counter-checked studies of Brookhaven National Laboratory. In addition, the American company points to its extensive recycling programme, which ensures that the cadmium used causes no environmental damage.