Pushing sustainability in PV

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We know that Italy was one of the first European countries to have been hit by Covid-19. While the loss of life was devastating and the economic impacts far-reaching, it also appears to have strengthened the resolve of administrators in terms of fostering a “green economic growth” in its wake. What’s your take on this?

This situation, and it can be seen in the new EU budget, does seem to have pushed things in the right direction. It could help the green approach, including the circular economy. It might even positively impact the PV sector – and the European Green Deal will be a factor.

To what extent is there demand for sustainable materials from PV module manufacturers today?

I think as long as the legislation is not helping, is not backing it up, that there will not be enough of a push for sustainability in PV. I think seeing what the EU and some of the committees are trying, and doing quite well, is encouraging. These efforts really do endorse some of our points of view at Coveme.

The Joint Research Center (JRC ) of the EU basically endorsed findings that Coveme had supported, published by Fraunhofer ISE in 2018. The JRC has indicated that it believes that a list of PV module components that are fluoropolymer-free, and those which contain fluoropolymers, should be listed in some way.

What I find interesting in Coveme’s approach here is that you supply both backsheets containing fluoropolymers and those that are fluoropolymer-free. So, why is it that you are pushing sustainability of materials?

I have been with Coveme for 17 years, so it is right when I say sustainability is more of a long-term strategy, it is long-distance thinking – although you can go to the Coveme website and see the many things we do in terms of sustainability. We design our products with waste and pollution in mind, that is the key point – and we also keep our products in use for a long time and work to regenerate the natural system.

We do supply fluorinated backsheets in China, in India and for some of our Chinese clients in the United States. But I think the industry is ready for recycling to become more prominent and for circular economy principles to be adopted. But you are right, we do everything.

The fluoropolymer products are excellent products, I can’t deny it. We do everything that the market wants, we have nothing against certain backsheet configurations – Mylar UVHPET, PVDF or others – but from a recycling point of view we think there is a clear advantage in having polyester-based backsheet, keeping in mind that also in our PVF or PVDF backsheet the main part is PET.

I am sure that you know, that Coveme used to supply only PVF, or Tedlar-based backsheets in the past. The development of PET-based backsheet was a natural evolution toward a more sustainable product where we leveraged our expertise in converting PET. And from a recycling point of view, there are still a number of different things that we can do to enhance the finished product from a recycling point of view.

Here, labeling could be something that works. There could be a red label for modules with backsheet of more environmental impact and a green label for the more virtuous ones – and those with the red label may incur a very slightly higher price to take back and a little bit of extra cost to dispose. This is what they are doing in some other industries and it could be applied to PV.

I understand that Coveme has also begun to use some recycled material in its backsheets?

We are doing that in PV – right now on a level of around 30% recycled PET. When we laminate the backsheet and even if you use PVF, you still have one polyester layer, the inner layer. If you use a full polyester based backsheet, even the outer layer is polyester.

In other industries Coveme has achieved up to 60-70% recycled PET in its products. It is an area we are keen to explore and we have good feedback from the market. The product is not cheaper, but there is interest in going in that direction. In the Scandinavian market, we have seen that they are very open to that idea and to embrace fluoropolymer-free, chlorine-free materials and recycled materials.

It is an area we are working diligently in and an additional tool that we are working on in our portfolio. But I do need to say that it won’t be cheaper. The same is true of recycled paper – it is not cheaper. This is because the economies of scale haven’t really kicked in yet. An apples-to-apples comparison will come when the economies of scale will be at the same level in recycled PET as it is with first use.

Longevity is also a key lever in terms of sustainability: The longer the module lasts in the field, the more sustainable the outcome. And here, the backhseet is a key component. Do you think there is an understanding of this?

A major goal should be to keep the product in use for as long as possible. The reality today is that you could have a Ferrari but sometimes the market wants to buy a smaller, cheaper car. From a technical perspective, we have all the information to do it. So, the decision comes down to a cost point of view.

That is why I go back to legislation, technically we have everything we need make a product that will last forever. But if the focus is on a few cents here or there, to keep pushing for cheaper, the result will be a low-cost solution.