The new European Commission has just revealed their plans for the planet – the European Green Deal sets ambitious objectives in various sectors to make the EU climate neutral by 2050. In practice, this means no net emission of greenhouse gases in 2050, a vision already developed in the long-term strategy “Clean Planet for all 2050” adopted in 2018.
Energy efficiency, large scale electrification and uptake of renewable energy sources are all key aspects to this strategy, and the production of electricity and heat from photovoltaic systems in particular will play a crucial part in this transition. Its pivotal role is also confirmed in the draft taxonomy of green activities, where PV-produced electricity is cited as a climate change mitigation activity.
Better and longer-lasting products are our best chance
The road to achieving these objectives is long and winding, but we are not starting from scratch: two excellent policies are already in place to guide us. The Ecodesign Directive and Energy Labelling Regulation have proved highly successful and secured large energy savings over the past decade, and are now also ensuring that more durable, long-lasting products are put on the European market.
On the one hand, ecodesign ensures minimum thresholds for energy efficiency and material efficiency requirements for products to comply with. On the other hand, energy labels pull consumers towards the most efficient products. But it gets even better: in October 2019, the EU adopted a package of measures for a number of products which, for the first time ever, contain provisions facilitating repair and recyclability. Not only do they pave the way for better and longer-lasting products, but they are also estimated to trigger energy savings equal to the annual energy consumption of Denmark by 2030.
But what about the climate?
There is good news here, too: requirements favoring longer-lasting products also contribute to reductions in CO2 emissions, as a number of the products regulated by ecodesign have a significant environmental impact in the production phase. This is the case for IT products such as smartphones and computers, or batteries for electric vehicles, or solar panels. By making sure we use those products longer, we mitigate the climate impact of their production.
Regulating solar panels – what’s in the toolbox?
It goes without saying that solar panels contribute to the electrification and production of green electricity inside the EU, but the impact of their production in terms of resource and energy intensity should not be overlooked, especially if they are produced in third countries where the electricity mix is very carbon intensive.
The European Green Deal also highlights so-called “carbon leakage”, and the potential high carbon content of products we import. This is why the European Commission is in the process of regulating solar PV modules, inverters and systems under the Ecodesign Directive. This complex work is based on a preparatory study carried out in the summer of 2019, which recommends that a combination of measures such as ecodesign, energy labeling, the EU Ecolabel and Green Public Procurement (GPP) criteria should be explored.
While these options are interesting to explore, ECOS strongly believes that ecodesign requirements are crucial here, especially to ensure a minimum level of efficiency, repairability and recyclability of PV modules. Whichever option is being discussed, higher efficiency should not be a trade-off for the inclusion of hazardous substances.
We should also keep in mind that, in this very case, energy labeling would be difficult to implement. Several factors affect the efficiency: the combination of PV panels and inverter or local conditions such as shading, inclination or temperature, which make the performance calculation very complex. Besides, energy labels could create confusion regarding the benefits of PV panels because instead of consuming electricity, they produce it. An energy label could end up being a counterproductive signal: even those PV systems which are not A or B rated produce clean electricity, which should be encouraged as a rule.
Solar power has a tremendous potential to deliver on the ambitious objectives of the European Green Deal. But circular thinking needs to be at the heart of the solar PV sector. Work is needed towards designing out waste and pollution of its products and systems, and designing in repair, reuse and recycling. We should aim at using less materials overall, while eliminating substances of concern and incorporating recycled content. Retaining value as long as possible, through reuse and repair, must be the priority.
The solar PV sector should proactively take on this circular challenge, and not rest on its laurels of knowing that it is best placed to power the decarbonization of our society.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.