Interview: JinkoSolar on why it has chosen a cradle to cradle path

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To mark the launch of our new UP initiative, pv magazine spoke to a number of solar’s sustainable pioneers to discover what they’re doing in the realm of sustainability. Below is the first in a series of interviews, which will be published in the coming weeks.

While a host of companies, governments, and organizations have already embraced cradle to cradle, or C2C certification, to date, just two are from the solar industry: SunPower Inc., which obtained Silver certification in 2014, and JinkoSolar Holding Co. Ltd, which the first Chinese company ever to receive the certification (also Silver), in November 2017 for its Eagle module series.

Overall, products are certified based on analysis in five categories: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. “A product receives an achievement level in each category — Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum — with the lowest level representing the product’s overall mark,” explains the C2C Products Innovation Institute.

Follow this link to see exactly what the silver certification means: https://www.c2ccertified.org/get-certified/levels/silver/v3_0

pv magazine: Why did JinkoSolar decide to obtain C2C certification for its Eagle series modules?

Radu Roman: We pay attention to what’s happening in the market and to customer feedback. Over the last couple of years in Europe, we’ve seen an increasing interest for anything that touches environmental topics, like carbon footprint, environmental health and safety, corporate social responsibility, and sustainability. This is particularly true of our Scandinavian customers, but also from the big utilities, especially in Germany.

Furthermore, everybody is talking about solar modules, and other renewable technologies, as offsetting CO2 emissions. But that’s just the product. We wanted to show that it was also possible to do something with carbon emissions when it came to manufacturing. So the carbon offsetting is reflected in the value chain. That was the main driver.

What made you choose C2C certification over other initiatives?

To date, it is the most comprehensive certification, and is excellent, because it is not specific to the solar industry. It looks at many more factors than just the simple carbon footprint calculation, with the five categories much more inclusive of the efforts that manufacturers are doing.

At the end of the day, we are selling a product that has to be out there performing for 25 years, which means that we are selling our products to partners, not to customers. When you want to build a relationship, it has to be built on trust and I think this particular certification is one of the ingredients for creating that trust.

How did the topic arise internally? Did management come up with the idea or did they have to be convinced?

Regional managers received feedback from customers, which they then conveyed to the management in China. They were actually very open. Jinko’s top management were actually very open and keen to invest into such an initiative, in order to make our quality and sustainability commitment as transparent as possible, which is an important success factor to differentiate from other module manufacturers.

What was the certification process like?

We have a certification team in China, which handles the entire process from technical due diligence to the financial aspects. The whole process took around 10 months since the documentation was submitted and site visits were concluded, to the issuing of the certification. For confidentiality reasons, we cannot share any details about cost or about the BoM (Bill of Materials).

Overall, JinkoSolar received a Silver level of certification. However, for material reutilization, it was awarded Gold, which means that ≥65% or more of the materials used in the module can be either recycled, are renewable, or compostable/biodegradable. In a solar module, where over 70% of the product is considered glass, it is arguably very easy to obtain certification. What process is in place to ensure things like the backsheet and silicon/other materials are safely recycled? Is Jinko aiming to address these issues in the future, or to obtain higher levels of certification?

In order to achieve “Platinum” level in the “Material reutilization” category, one has to use biodegradable components in their products. Jinko Solar has reached the highest level (Gold) considering the specifics of the crystalline module manufacturing industry, which does not include/use biodegradable components – components have to resist 25 years in the field, so these cannot be biodegradable. Technically speaking, it is thus not possible to reach “Platinum” for solar modules.

In Europe, module end of life is managed through PV Cycle. Customers inform us about the need to dispose of modules that need recycling. Generally, we then inform PV Cycle who arranges for the logistics and recycling at no additional cost for our customers. It works differently in various countries in Europe, as the European WEEE directive has been translated into national legislations in different ways.

The recycling industry has designed processes that enable a high degree of material recovery. We are thus relying on the know-how of the players in the recycling industry to offer players like us recycling as an outsourced service.

Under Silver certification, 5% of purchased electricity must be renewably sourced or offset with renewable energy projects, and 5% of direct on-site emissions must be offset, for the final manufacturing stage of the product. This is quite low. What is Jinko doing to meet these requirements? Does it have solar installed on all its manufacturing sites?

We generate solar energy onsite and we use it for own consumption (we are not selling it externally). The electricity we source from the state owned utility is a mix of conventional and renewable energy. Between the two sources, we use around 1/3 renewable energy.

How did the partners you work with react to the news you were obtaining C2C certification?

They are behind the scenes, so it is not public information. It is a cost benefit for them as well, however, because if they are reluctant to share information, it affects their business with us. So far, we have been very successful. We are extending certification to two more products – our hero product, Cheetah and the new bifacial with transparent backsheet series, which is being launched at Intersolar Europe in Munich– and we are currently collecting information from different suppliers.

The new bifacial product will be C2C certified?

We are currently working on adding it to the certification; we expect it to be added in the second half of 2019.

The results of the certification are not publicly shared. How do you respond for requests for transparency?

If customers want to find out more, like how it works or why is something like it is, then we share the test report of the certification, and then you can see exactly what has been taken into consideration, how is has been calculated, etc. It is a 46-page document, which we share only with selected customers.