Does solar sustainability go far enough?

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2015 was a historical year for the climate, with the unveiling of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; and the Paris Agreement, which saw 193 countries committing to undertaking ambitious efforts to tackle climate change, by chiefly focusing on achieving zero emissions.

Since 2018, the public’s calls for sustainable change have also intensified, bringing with it a new climate movement.

Solar and energy storage sit at the heart of the required transition. In addition to not being exempt from the risks of climate change, like disrupted business operations or increased prices of finite raw materials, the industries should also not be satisfied with simply manufacturing products that go on to generate or store PV energy.

Demand for verifiably sustainable products is growing not just with direct customers (installers) says Jürgen Reinert, CEO of SMA Solar Technology, but also with end consumers.

Thus, the industries’ goal is two-fold: To deploy as much PV capacity as quickly as possible, and to pioneer a new way of doing business, which focuses on clean manufacturing and sustainable business strategies.

Setting the stage

On June 10, pv magazine will hold its first virtual roundtable – the physical one having been disrupted by Covid-19. One of the key sessions hones in on sustainability, and has been split into two parts. The first focuses on the challenges and opportunities in manufacturing and technology development, with an emphasis on the challenges a terawatt industry will bring. A particular focus will be on circular manufacturing.

Circular solar

The UP initiative is gearing up to focus its next quarterly theme on circular manufacturing. We will bring together and critically investigate the work already being done, and identify ways PV companies can start effectively integrating principles of systems thinking and circularity into existing business models. If you want to join UP, contact up@pv-magazine.com.

Tom Rommens, research and project coordinator of Vito, will discuss what is being done under Circusol, a Horizon 2020 program of the European Commission focused on Circular Business Models for the Solar Power Industry. Overall, the aim is to not only unearth new business opportunities, like solar as a service, but to also look at the redesign and recyclability of solar products, among other issues.

He will be joined by Pierre Verlinden, managing director of Amrock; Sebastian Gatz, vice president of Von Ardenne; and Michele Vannini, business manager for Coveme.

Certification considerations

This discussion sets the stage for the second session, which will focus on certification. In addition to examining how the first sustainability standard – NSF/ANSI 457-2019: Sustainability Leadership Standard for Photovoltaic Modules and Photovoltaic Inverters – was born in the United States, we will also discuss its integration into the EPEAT registry, and how this will help launch it onto a global platform.

Europe and the Ecodesign directive, which is likely to become mandatory for solar manufacturers, will be a further focus. Overall, we will ask if the standards go far enough, and how often they should be reviewed.

On the panel will be UP initiative sponsor, Jürgen Reinert, CEO of SMA Solar Technology; Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition; Nancy Gillis, CEO of Green Electronics Council/EPEAT; Dustin Mulvany, a professor at San Jose State University; and Andreas Wade, global sustainability director at First Solar.

More information and free registration

Providing background for the discussion, SMA’s Jürgen Reinert answers some key questions on certification below.

pv magazine: What are the key sustainability issues for solar businesses?

Jürgen Reinert: As sustainability is a key driver for using renewable energies, solar businesses should put an emphasis on their sustainability. Otherwise they will lose their credibility. Key issues for solar businesses in this context are the use of renewable energies in their own and their supplier’s operations, a low carbon footprint, but also all topics relating to a circular economy, the avoidance of critical components and conflict minerals. Quality and longevity are also important in order to use as less resources as possible.

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How can standards help address these issues?

Standards can throw attention to these topics and make consumers as well as producers aware of them. Consistent standards for the whole industry underline our commitment to sustainability and make the achievements of different PV businesses visible and comparable.

SMA was involved in the creation of the specific global standard for solar modules and inverters. How and why did the company become involved?

As a leading developer and producer of PV inverters with an unmatched experience and expertise, SMA was approached to provide its know-how in inverter technology as an indispensable basis for the standard. Our long-standing sustainability engagement and intensive research into sustainable product design are also assets here.

What did SMA contribute to the process?

Main aspects of the expertise we provided related to basic knowledge and the typical structure of a PV inverter as well as information on which material compositions and components are relevant when it comes to ecodesign. Also important was the potential for improving the sustainability performance of inverters.

From a business perspective, what are the key challenges in creating such standards?

Key challenge here is to integrate the complete product footprint. This includes the entire impact of the product, from the extraction of raw materials, production and operation to disposal or recycling. Another important factor is which aspects are most important for the main stakeholders.

How can skeptical companies be motivated to take part in such certification? What are the quantifiable advantages?

Sustainability becomes an ever more important topic for different stakeholder groups around the world. More and more customers from all segments are looking for sustainable products. With a sustainability certification, companies can prove the sustainability of their products by publicly recognized standards and increase sales.

What other specific sustainability standards does SMA have?

In the scope of our sustainability strategy, we have defined specific measurable sustainability goals based on our intensive stakeholder dialogue and input from specialists from different areas of the company in order to make SMA and our products ever more sustainable. We have compiled these in our Company Key Figure and our Product Key Figure. The Company Key Figure measures the use of resources and the value that this creates. The aim here is to create more value with fewer resources. The bigger the gap between the value created and the resources used to do so, the more sustainable the Company. The Product Key Figure follows the same pattern as the Company Key Figure and measures the increase in sustainability of our products and services by parameters such as use of renewable energies, longevity, recyclability, material use, waste, etc.

As a company, what benefit is there to having lots of different certification programs available to companies? Or should cooperation be used to drive a single standard?

We should definitely work together to establish a single standard. This would be fair to all parties involved, make sustainability of companies and products transparent and comparable at one view and could be easily handled by all stakeholders. In addition to this single standard, it makes sense for companies to develop their own transparent and well justified sustainability standards that go beyond that.

Evidence suggests that voluntary measures have little effect in driving real change. On the other hand, they are often precursors to formal regulation. What is your opinion? Should solar sustainability standards be mandatory? Do you see a move for more formal measures?

As already mentioned above, I think that it is very important for the solar industry to drive sustainability further and to be a forerunner in this topic. After all, renewable energies are only truly sustainable if the equipment used for their production is also sustainable, i.e. fulfils the criteria mentioned above. Mandatory sustainability standards that would make the goals and achievements of the industry transparent to all stakeholders would strongly support this. There should be some kind of core set of standards by which the industry acts. Within this scope, each company should also be able to set its own specific priorities. Care should be taken to ensure, however, that the measurement methods are carried out on a similar basis.

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