The weekend read: The sustainable pioneers

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From the May edition of pv magazine

Change is not always easy. Many believe there is a contradiction between being cost-effective and being sustainable. Some fear that by looking at negative sides of the industry, we will add more fuel to the anti-solar fire. Others, however, are presenting business models and case studies showing the economic benefits to be reaped and positive PR to be had.

Setting the stage

In 2010, non-profit PV Cycle was founded to establish collection and recycling of used PV modules. By the end of 2018, PV Cycle said it had collected over 27,000 metric tons, or around 340 MW of modules. “Related to general expectations of the recycling industry, these are low amounts but provide a base of knowledge and experience to build proper recycling technologies in the future,” it says.

Two years after the formation of PV Cycle, the EU rolled out its WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) Directive for solar, obliging producers to take back for free and recycle, PV modules. This was – and to date still is – the first time a law had been passed dealing with the topic of PV waste. EU countries had until 2014 to transfer the directive into their respective national laws.

While not a specific solar or storage law, REACH, or the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals, is an EU regulation that came into effect in 2006. It aims to address potential impact of chemicals on humans and the environment. All companies manufacturing or importing one metric ton or more of chemical substances into the EU annually must register with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). Criticism has been aimed at the fact it uses animal testing, and that progress is slow, however.

Eco-labeling

This year, the European Union is looking at applying the EU Ecolabel – a design standard promoting the principles of the circular economy – to PV systems. Karl-Anders Weiß, Head of Service Life Analysis at Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, has been involved in the process from the beginning. He and his colleagues have pushed for the label, believing that if people become aware that PV is the only electronics industry still using materials like lead and fluoropolymers, this could be “severe for the image of the industry.” The Ecolabel will be addressed in-depth in upcoming editions of pv magazine.

Dustin Mulvaney, associate professor, Department of Environmental Studies, San José State University explains that in the United States, the Federal Government doesn’t have comprehensive e-waste laws, so states are responsible for creating their own regulations. He says California is looking to introduce the concept of extended producer responsibility. While he believes there will be some pushback from industry, which will complain that regulation will financially ruin it, these are issues that have an effect. “We want to put natural gas out of business, we don’t want to put solar out of business,” says Mulvaney. “That said, they might put themselves out of business. Some of [these] things I talk about in my book [Solar Power, Innovation, Sustainability, Environmental Justice, released this April] – e.g. the Washington Post exposé in 2008 on polysilicon dumping. Liquidity from the industry vaporized as stock prices fell… The same thing happened with a hydrofluoric acid spill a few years later: one company lost $100 million in value overnight… So if end-of-life photovoltaics in landfills start to make headlines… it could affect a company’s bottom line.”

Going circular

While some legislative progress is being made on the topic of sustainability, there are programs and initiatives in place that go further. All the initiatives mentioned here exist, in some form or another, under the term ‘circular economy’.

In March, the European Commission wrote, “The circular economy is now an irreversible global trend.” Yet, much is still needed to scale up action at EU level and globally, to fully close the loop and secure the competitive advantage it brings to EU businesses. Increased effort will be needed to implement the revised waste legislation and develop markets for secondary raw materials. Also, the work started at EU level on some issues (like chemicals, non-toxic environment, eco-labeling and eco-innovation, critical raw materials, and fertilizers) needs to be accelerated if Europe wants to reap the full benefit of transition to a circular economy.”

In a nutshell, the concept of a circular economy is an alternative to a linear economy built on the principles of make, use, dispose, and argues for keeping resources in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them whilst in use, and then recovering and regenerating them at the end of each service life. The concept of waste does not exist.

Many modern proponents of the circular economy, like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, base their visions of the circular economy on the principles of cradle to cradle (C2C).

Cradle to cradle

A host of companies, governments, and organizations have already embraced C2C certification (see pp. 24-25). To date, just two are from the solar industry: Sunpower Inc., which obtained Silver certification in 2014, and JinkoSolar Power Holding Co. Ltd, which claims to be the first Chinese company ever to receive the certification (also Silver), in November 2017 for its Eagle module series.

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.

Responding to why the company applied for certification, Radu Roman, Product & Business Development Manager – Europe at JinkoSolar, says it was a reaction to customer feedback. “What we saw in the last couple of years is that there is more interest in what companies are doing in terms of being environmentally friendly. So we decided to formalize our efforts,” he says, adding, “everybody is talking about solar modules along with other renewable technologies offsetting CO2 emissions. But that’s the product … We wanted to show that it is possible to do something with carbon emissions when it came to manufacturing. So the carbon offsetting is reflected in the value chain.”

Roman believes that C2C is currently the most comprehensive certification out there, as it looks at more than just carbon footprint. And to prove its commitment, Jinko is in the process of rolling out C2C certification to another two products.

Going further?

Mulvaney believes C2C is “a great step in the right direction.” However, he says the standard he has been working on together with various groups including NGOs, environmental organizations, manufacturers, and landfill operators, goes further.

Mulvaney explains that the American National Standard, NSF/ANSI 457 Sustainability Leadership Standard for Photovoltaic Modules was a stakeholder-led process, where criteria were decided upon collectively. “You can find out a lot more about a company’s manufacturing, where a company falls short, and where they are successful, there’s just a lot more detail.” To date, he continues, no company has met the standard, but some are working on it, and he expects that several will.

According to the official document, “The purpose of this standard for photovoltaic modules is to establish sustainability performance criteria and corporate performance metrics that exemplify sustainability leadership in the market. These performance criteria are intended to form the basis of conformity assessment programs, such as third-party certification or registration.” It has most recently been expanded to include inverter manufacturers, and storage is now in discussion.

Broadening horizons

PV Cycle is expanding its horizons, and has, since last June, been investing 1% of its income into R&D for Circusol (Circular Business Models for the Solar Power Industry) – a four year project funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 program.

According to the website, “It brings together 15 partners from seven European countries to develop and demonstrate business solutions for circular economy in the solar power sector.” Keywords here are ‘second life’ and ‘PSS’ or a product-service system which, similar to Braungart’s ideas (see interview on pp. 22-23), propose business models based on pay-per-use, for example. PV manufacturer Solitek will reportedly work together with recycler Loser Chemie, PV Cycle, and research institute imec “to identify how product design can lead to life cycle cost reduction, and how business models can help to align incentives and create business win-wins for circular product designs.”

Sheila Davis, Executive Director at the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (STVC), tells pv magazine she is currently working on updating the coalition’s annual solar scorecard. Coming up for 10 years in 2020, she believes it is now time to update the criteria to encompass the circular economy. Not only that, but together with the Collaboratory for a Regenerative Economy (CoRE) – a partnership led by Niagara Shares in collaboration with the University of Buffalo’s Department of Materials Design and Innovation and Clean Production Action – she is looking to apply the circular principles to the whole of the solar economy in Buffalo, New York, where Tesla and Panasonic have their U.S. manufacturing base.

This June, they will hold a summit looking at the entire life cycle of solar. The goal is to try and map out the environmental and social impacts, looking at three areas: First, when you make a life cycle design or chemical change, how does it change the whole system? Where can we have the most impact in terms of advocating for those changes? Where is the most leverage? What are the priorities? Second, look at the life cycle of the supply chain. What are the types of social and natural capital investments that should be made? And third, what type of technology is needed to accelerate sustainability?

General awareness

Circular economy is also a topic being addressed by glass coatings and backsheet supplier DSM. “What we noticed is that there are company stakeholders that are really concerned – it’s an important topic,” explains Imco Goudswaard, Sustainability Manager for DSM Advanced Solar. To this end, DSM has been investing over the past years in finding ways to produce products that fit these principles. Particularly when it comes to the backsheet, however, this is no easy task.

While backsheets currently cannot be recycled as a finished product in the PV module, the edge-trim waste produced in creating the backsheets can be reused by packaging suppliers to make boxes, or other companies making chairs, for instance, he says. Responding to the fact that there are already C2C certified polymers available, he says, “As a customer of polymers, I think we should look carefully and see if this is applicable for the solar industry.”

Goudswaard adds that while people are concerned about these issues, general awareness of the topic is limited, and few companies really put research and resources into it. “If you ask them if they are going to spend some money, few are willing.” Watch out for the full interviews with the above mentioned industry players on www.pv-magazine.com in the coming days and weeks; and check out the UP initiative feature page.