Are Europe’s major solar associations divided, again?

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A news story published in the French daily Le Monde on Friday was the kindling that kicked off a media firestorm between two of Europe’s most prominent PV lobby groups – SolarPower Europe and the European Solar Manufacturing Council (ESMC).

According to Le Monde, Brussels-based SolarPower Europe is allegedly trying to weaken draft European Union (EU) legislation relating to the ban of imported products made partially or wholly with forced labor. Brussels-based SolarPower Europe denied these claims in the news article and to pv magazine.

SolarPower Europe CEO Walburga Hemetsberger told pv magazine that the 300-member strong association – consisting of 13% businesses headquartered in China – is not trying to water down EU legislation. “Our goal is, and has consistently been, to ensure legislation can do what it intends – that is to stop the import of products made with forced labor into the EU,” she said.

The Le Monde article said two leaked internal documents and an email show that SolarPower Europe is also opposed to the principle of reversing the burden of proof, and instead is opting for its 2021-founded Solar Stewardship Initiative (SSI) program. Hemetsberger refuted this.

“We have never suggested that the SSI should act as a replacement to the Forced Labor Ban or related sustainability efforts,” she said. “The SSI will serve to accelerate the goals and implementation of the Forced Labor Ban, the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive and other legislation.”

Hemetsberger said that SolarPower Europe agreed with the European Commission’s position on companies maintaining a burden of proof. The European Commission legislation, amended by Members of the Parliament, calls for the Commission to make a list of geographical areas and economic sectors at “high risk” of using forced labor, with the burden of proof falling on companies to prove that they do not use forced labor.

Once the story broke, the European Solar Manufacturing Council (ESCM) released its own press release. The Brussels-based organization’s sustainability policy director Jens Holm said that weakening legislation is “extremely destructive” and incongruous with the industry’s social responsibility. “At ESMC, we are disheartened to learn that such values are associated with our industry,” he said. “We expect our colleagues from SolarPower Europe to make their position clear; don’t you want a robust ban on all forced labor products?”

What is clear is that a fissure is widening between the trade bodies. But division in the European solar industry is not new. The association EU ProSun was founded in 2012 with the aim of defending the European PV supply chain against the looming might of the Chinese module manufacturing industry.

The entity campaigned to introduce anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties against Chinese solar products, which led the European Commission to develop a minimum-price threshold on Chinese PV panels in 2013. EU Prosun became inactive in 2018 after several years of struggling with the hegemon association, which was not in favor of introducing Chinese module restriction measures.

ESCM and SolarPower Europe have also recently expressed opposing views on the European Parliament’s recently supported EU Net-Zero Industry Act. SolarPower Europe policy director Dries Acke warned that the Act's requirements – of limiting tendered projects that use technology sourced outside the EU – may be a “red flag” for the solar sector and “for those committed to the EU’s energy security and climate goals.” But ESMC policy director Žygimantas Vaičiūnas took a different route and said the Act aligns “perfectly” with European industry interests.

Questioned whether these fresh divisions are beneficial for the solar sector, SolarPower Europe’s Hemetsberger said that any ostensible disunity – or what she refers to as “nuances in positioning” – is “regrettable” as it weakens the overall voice of the solar industry. “[The] challenge of our time requires a united sector representation,” she said.

ESMC's Holm told pv magazine that his association strongly favors European PV manufacturers and the overall industry, and SolarPower Europe “could” align itself with these values. At the end of the day, though, he said both organizations have one common enemy – the fossil fuel industry. But the climate transition, reliant on phasing out of fossil fuels and the phasing in of PV, “must not” be tainted with human rights violations, he said.

“We hope that we can agree to a common position that human rights violations, forced labor in particular, should be a no-go zone for the European solar sector,” Holm said.

ESMC and SolarPower Europe to discuss these topics at pv magazine Roundtables Europe 2023

This year’s decline in panel prices, European PV manufacturing, tariffs and the prevention of forced labor. On December 6th at 12:30 CET we will discuss with analysts, trade associations and industry representatives how far the decline in panel prices might go, the current state and scale of European PV manufacturing, who is pushing for tariffs and whether tariffs would be effective, and what measures are being developed at the EU level to secure acceptable working conditions. Speakers include: Alexia Ruvoletto, Senior Policy Advisor on Trade | SolarPower Europe Elisabeth Schellmann, Policy Officer – Seconded National Expert | European Commission Johan Lindahl, Secretary General | European Solar Manufacturing Council Jochen Hauff, Director of Corporate Strategy, Energy Policy & Sustainability | BayWa r.e. For more information and free registration click here]

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