Greening solar supply chains



Renewable energy technologies fueled by wind and the sun are critical to addressing the climate crisis. However, many chemicals used in the production of solar and wind technologies are harmful to human health and the environment, scarce in supply, or sourced from countries that are unable to protect human rights. The notion of greening solar manufacturing isn’t new, but there is a renewed urgency surrounding it. This includes the reduction and management of chemicals of concern in PV manufacturing.

Market pressures mount

In 2020, the solar industry collaboratively finalized a roadmap of key sustainability metrics for the sector, creating NSF 457: Sustainability Leadership Standard for Photovoltaic Modules and Photovoltaic Inverters. This standard calls on companies to disclose and restrict the use of chemicals of high concern commonly used in the electronics sector such as those included on the International Electrotechnical Commission’s (IEC) 62474 material declaration list.

Going forward, this roadmap’s metrics will influence how companies conduct business in large portions of the world. Concurrent with ratcheting standards and regulations, the Clean Electronics Production Network (CEPN) recently launched the Toward Zero Exposure program, which facilitates and coordinates companies’ voluntary actions to protect workers from hazardous chemicals, helping them amplify their impact and stay ahead of regulation.

PV manufacturers are being required to meet performance benchmarks for material use in Type 1 Ecolabels like the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), which are used by the European Union and the United States government in procurement preferences. Regulations like the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) and RoHS have global implications on supply chains, product certifications, and public perception.

A company’s demonstrable commitment to eliminating chemicals of concern from manufacturing is becoming a key factor in investment decisions and access to capital and financing options, too. In 2019, investors representing over US$1.5 trillion in assets under management supported corporate engagement in the Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition’s (SVTC) Solar Scorecard. Leading solar companies like Jinko, Trina, and SunPower developed corporate sustainability programs with a strong focus on recycling and reducing waste.

For the past decade, investors working in partnership with the Solar Scorecard have leveraged best practices in the electronics sector for new key performance indicators in the solar sector. Investors are increasingly focused on supply chain transparency for the solar sector, asking companies to set clear goals and timelines for greening supply chains and improving worker health and safety.

Investors used the Scorecard to assess companies and promote a “race to the top” approach on broad-based sustainability metrics across market leaders. Banks are even using the Solar Scorecard to establish a baseline for financing solar developments: one European bank instituted a policy requiring solar companies to achieve a score of 80 or higher on the Solar Scorecard in order to qualify for loans.

The call for collective action

Solar energy is built on an electronic platform dependent on similar materials of concern to other major technologies also under pressure from market drivers in the United States and Europe to use safer chemicals. In response, electronics industry leaders have created forward-looking chemical management programs that increase transparency on chemical use in the supply chain and drive safer substitution for chemicals.

These global conditions have created strong incentives for electronic leaders and major solar customers to seize the opportunity to create new pathways for collective action toward eliminating toxins from solar manufacturing. In response, the Clean Electronics Production Network (CEPN) recently launched Toward Zero Exposure with founding Signatories Apple, HP Inc., and Dell. Toward Zero Exposure is a commitment program that collectively addresses worker exposure to manufacturing process chemicals of concern used in electronic technologies. CEPN is inviting solar manufacturers to join as Signatories.

Toward Zero Exposure focuses on protecting workers from chemical hazards, with actions centered on the supply chain, where the greatest risk of chemical exposure exists for workers. The program was developed by CEPN’s multistakeholder collaborative network of NGOs such as Clean Production Action; major companies including Apple, Dell, Seagate, Cisco, Fairphone, Intel, and HP Inc.; government entities like the Environmental Protection Agency; and other labor, health and safety leaders such as the founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. The Responsible Business Alliance, which includes members like Tesla and First Solar, is also a member of CEPN and is working to bring CEPN’s supply chain management tools and resources into their network.

The program is a commitment to accelerate existing efforts in chemical safety and boost awareness of the need to improve chemical management practices across the global electronics manufacturing industry to eliminate workers’ exposure to hazardous chemicals. The program includes a commitment to eliminate or safely substitute nine priority processing chemicals, all of which are known to cause harm to human health, in key areas of each signatory’s supply chain.

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Resources for real change

By joining the Toward Zero Exposure program and pledging to address worker exposure, solar companies gain access to industry expertise and resources to fully support these transitions. The program provides comprehensive tools and protocols to manage chemical use in the supply chain, Green Screen assessments of safer solvents for cleaners and degreasers, as well as research and identification of safer alternatives that meet performance requirements. These are key ingredients to fast-tracking safer material innovation that builds on a decade of work electronics industry leaders have invested in through CEPN.

The Toward Zero Exposure program guides signatories through clear documentation on progress including benchmarks, milestones, and deadlines for program activities. Company actions are informed by a structured program with researched and pragmatic activities backed by the credibility of industry leaders and NGOs. By participating in the commitment program, companies join a structured forum to communicate and receive recognition for the work they do to protect workers from hazardous process chemicals.

Toward Zero Exposure Signatories pledge to take action in six areas:

  1. Eliminate Exposures to Priority Chemicals: Protect workers from exposure to Priority Chemicals in the electronics supply chain, prioritizing elimination or substitution with safer alternatives and protecting workers until that is achieved.
  2. Collect Process Chemical Data: Collect data on company and supplier facility use of process chemicals to support collective mapping across supply chains.
  3. Foster Worker Engagement and Participation: Build safety systems and culture around process chemical management through support for the maturation of governance systems that protect the health of workers, where workers are consulted, informed, and actively participating.
  4. Reach into Deeper Tiers: Work with selected suppliers to join the Commitment Program to reduce worker exposure to toxic chemicals in the extended electronics supply chain.
  5. Verify and Report: Ensure progress towards implementing the Commitments through verification and annual reporting to workers and the public.
  6. Continuously Improve: Continuous improvement across all areas above.

Proactive action to protect future assets

This pledge represents an opportunity for the solar sector to meet growing customer and investor pressure calling for transparent and green supply chains, and to reduce costs from brand devaluation, fines, and litigation. Expectations of solar companies to align their brand with best practices in sustainability and authenticity continue to heighten, and participation in leadership initiatives addressing major industry-wide challenges – like chemical exposure – are becoming essential.

Solar industry growth is at its fastest in two decades. As companies scale up to meet increased demand, there’s an opportunity to put standards in place now that will remove toxic solvents from solar manufacturing moving forward. The renewable energy sector has long proven its ability to innovate quickly and make progress towards environmental and social benchmarks—this is the next logical and attainable step.

Learn more and become a Signatory of the Toward Zero Exposure Program


Pamela Brody Heine is Senior Director, Clean Electronics Production Network; Alexandra McPherson is Principal, Niagara Share; Cheri Peele is Program Manager, Chemical Footprint Project, Clean Production Action; and Shelia Davis is Executive Director, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

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