Rethinking solar sustainability

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When using the word sustainability in the PV industry, most industry participants would relate it to the technical or quality aspects of a PV system, along with the commercial (bankability) aspect. However, these are just two elements of sustainability. We must examine more aspects for the unique PV industry, including political sustainability, corporate sustainability, and industrial sustainability.

Political sustainability becomes evident with perspective. Looking back some 15 to 20 years ago, countries like Japan, Germany, and the United States were the global leaders in solar. Why? Their technological and manufacturing structure was on a level that allowed, what was at the time, large-scale production. It is worth noting that 50 or 100 MW of production capacity was a decent-sized manufacturer in those days.

At that time, such large-scale production would have little value if the governments in those countries didn’t demonstrate sufficient enthusiasm to politically support the commercialized use of PV technology at both residential and industrial scale – essentially, market-forming subsidy programs. Members of the German PV community might still remember the “1,000 roofs” program to support residential installations, which was later replaced with the “100,000 roofs” program as a sign of the great success of the original idea.

I am not a supporter of political interference in the PV market. In saying that, however, I understand the importance of subsidy programs. Especially at the point that an entirely new technology is introduced, like solar, which offered the potential to be a game-changer in a reasonably short period of time.

It is also key to understand that sustainability in the political perspective also necessitates the ability to politically withdraw from the evolution of the industry at the moment the market can stand on its own feet. It should then continue to develop on the basis of standard market-driven mechanisms.

Political influence

It should also be acknowledged that during the early stages of development of the PV market, there were also occasions when political action or inaction caused enormous shakeouts of the industry; some markets collapsed quite literally overnight. The experience of Spain or the Czech Republic some 10 years ago are perfect examples. The scars from those experiences are still present, and some could argue these markets have not fully healed, and continue to present some obstacles in today’s booming PV industry.

Of course, there are additional aspects to “political sustainability” that includes anti-dumping and other trade related disputes. But from these examples alone, the importance of this, at times overlooked, aspect is clear.

Corporate sustainability is another factor which played an important role in the evolution of the PV industry. The history of Berlin-based manufacturer Solon is an illuminating example. Solon used to be one of the synonyms for high-quality, made-in-Germany modules. They grew from a garage-sized company up to a sizable corporation with manufacturing across several continents. Sadly, the company’s fall was about as fast as its growth.

Highly regarded cell producer ErSol is another example. The company was sold to the Bosch conglomerate at a peak time for the PV market (in terms of profitability), only then to be sold on again by Bosch to SolarWorld when prices were in rapid decline.

There are hundreds of other examples right around the globe. After enormous industry growth there was decline, which was sad to witness. Regardless of whether it was a startup or a large corporate conglomerate, and independent of location, product portfolio, or business structure, companies fell. Each one had its own story and an argument as to its viability.

Lessons from failure

For many of the fallen, there was one common aspect at play, which was an inability to survive rapidly changing market dynamics. These companies were unable to maneuver aspects of political sustainability in various countries, and unable to create a loyalty-bond with their customers. Finally, many of the failed companies failed to manage cashflows, making ill-timed investments that were instrumental to their downfall.

The message here is that a dominant focus on creating profit cannot be the core definition for a successful solar company. A company that doesn’t pay attention to its social influence, which does not make the effort to think outside of the box (which is not a cheap endeavor) loses the ability to differentiate itself from the competition.

Given this, such a profit-focused company has no right to survive in today´s aggressive global solar marketplace. This naturally applies to most companies worldwide. What is different in the PV industry is the exceptionally fast-paced, cost-sensitive, and at the same time, expensive innovation. If we add the fact that the industry is very young and inexperienced, then a small mistake can lead to enormous damage in the not-too-distant future.

Industrial sustainability can also be interpreted as industrial adaptability and integrity. The evolution of the PV industry is not a standalone project. Luckily, over the decades, the industry has benefited from many visionary people. We do not speak of PV in order to have an “exotic” way of sourcing electricity for our homes and lives. We also do not speak of PV as an instrument for generating profit for speculative investors. Rather, the core of the PV industry is the potential to be a trendsetter.

The PV industry should and must be one that has the ambition and potential to replace a significant portion of fossil fuel energy. The solar industry has the potential to be both beautiful and functional as a part of modern architecture. It is an industry that is driving new concepts such as energy independence and the storing of energy in a distributed fashion. PV is undoubtedly one of the most important factors if the vision of “Smart Cities” is to become a reality.

If we look over all the PV-related companies around the world, what would be the predominant characteristic? Production of super cheap products alone is not sustainable. In such a case, future growth, innovative thinking, and a sustainable pathway cannot be assured.

This means that the companies that have the ability to produce more than just a module of laminated cells will be writing the future of further industrial growth. It is not about collecting the sun’s rays and generating DC power. It is about bringing fast, reliable and safe ways of generating and storing power. Sustainability from an industrial point of view is about bringing new solutions for energy systems. One example of many, e-mobility networks, illustrates how PV has the potential to be an integrated part of the wider technological ecosystem.

Jan Mastny


About the author

Jan Mastny has been active in the PV industry since 2005 and has worked with several leading PV components manufacturers – previously with Onamba Japan, since 2015 with Leoni, and now with Studer Cables AG. He is currently responsible for global sales and support for wind and solar and market development. He has worked in R&D and product development and is involved with several international working groups and task forces.


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