Unstoppable power

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What is cradle to cradle?

After co-authoring the Hannover Principles in 1992 – a set of nine statements surrounding the environmental, societal, and sustainable growth impact of designing buildings and objects – Michael Braungart and William McDonough published Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things in 2002. It is a manifesto calling for a rethink in the way products are designed, based on a biomimetic system of life cycle development, which places products’ components in either a continuous technological nutrient or biological nutrient sphere. The idea is that products can have a positive effect on people and the environment, if done properly, i.e. by thinking of waste as food. They present what they say as a solution where the environmentalists’ and capitalists’ needs can go hand in hand. Products can also receive C2C certification via the C2C Products Innovation Institute, a non-profit independent body. Overall, there are five different levels of certification, ranging from “Basic” to “Platinum.”

At this point it is undeniable. Solar PV and energy storage together are an unstoppable force. Given their myriad unique characteristics – decentralized, positive operational effects, and rapid discharge, to name but a few of the strongest – they were always predestined to take the lead in moving our energy infrastructure away from fossil fuels to renewables, and to set a new ecological example. And despite the eye-watering subsidies still being paid to fossil fuels, and the stunning heel digging some are still performing in a bid to cling onto them, the price drops and growth rates of the former are persistent.

According to the latest figures shared by Fraunhofer ISE, at the end of 2018, cumulative PV capacity reached 515 GW, while it accounted for 2.6% of the worldwide electricity share. The compound annual growth rate of PV installations was 24% between 2010 and 2017, and this growth rate looks at the very least set to continue. More likely, however, it will ramp up. This means that by 2030, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that over one terawatt of solar will be deployed annually.

Great responsibility

While the origin of the saying is disputed – Voltaire, Churchill, Spiderman? – the meaning is very clear: With great power comes great responsibility.

One of the most pressing issues for the industry in the coming years is that of end of life. According to the most recent figures from both the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), which released a report in 2016 titled End of Life Management, Solar Photovoltaic Panels, between 60 million and 78 million metric tons of PV waste are expected to be produced by the 2050s (see chart to the bottom right), with China, the United States, Japan, India, and Germany, leading the way.

As you’ll see in the article on pp. 26-28, few countries have adopted PV-specific waste regulations. This is problematic, say experts like Dustin Mulvaney, associate professor, Department of Environmental Studies, San José State University, and Michael Braungart, one of the founders of Germany’s Green Party, cofounder of Greenpeace’s chemistry division, and visionary behind the cradle to cradle concept (see box below left) – particularly if you consider the fact hazardous chemicals, like lead, are still being used in PV modules.

Their volumes may be small on an individual module level, but when you consider the capacity at which modules will be produced in the near future, the issue becomes more pertinent, and is one of the key discussion points we will be focusing on in future editions of pv magazine. Circusol (Circular Business Models for the Solar Power Industry) – a four year project funded by the Horizon 2020 program of the European Commission – further points out that the current PV modules on the market “cannot be ‘re-opened’ and the only way for recycling is through destructive processes such as shredding.”

Meanwhile, Michael Braungart says, “The materials which are used in PV were never intended to be recycled. It’s never recycling – it’s only downcycling” (see interview pp. 24-25).

Sustainability issues around the mining of conflict materials such as cobalt for batteries, and the handling of chemicals like hydrofluoric acid in production processes, are also concerns which need to be closely examined.

It would be devastating if the energy transition was delayed on the back of doubts about its social and economic responsibility.

Pause for reflection

On April 2, 2019, France-based eco-fashion company Veja sent out an update to its social media followers: “A few years ago, we realized Veja was heading on the wrong path. We had a sneaker that was different, more ecological, more socially balanced than the other brands, but what about the rest? What about our team? What about our office in Paris? What about the other suppliers? We realized in 2007 that you could do the best ecological project, and still be the worst kind of company … When we changed in 2009, nobody was understanding why. Today, the answer appears clearly: We, as a company, are responsible [for] all the steps we make.”

Veja may not have anything directly to do with the solar or storage industries, however the point it makes couldn’t be more relevant. Indeed, while it is cause for celebration that solar and storage are the superheroes in our story, as we sit at the tipping point of the green energy transition, there is time for reflection.

Is everything being done to create a truly renewable industry? Are products and manufacturing practices clean enough? Are human rights and equality issues being appropriately addressed?

Employing renewable energy has the potential to not only address the issues created by fossil fuels – including the two most critical: geopolitics and pollution – but they could also help focus on others like energy poverty, a lack of education, and gender and racial inequality.

Setting a new course

We believe the industry should be doing more than just generating renewable electricity. It should also be helping to build a renewable society.

In light of this, pv magazine is setting a new editorial agenda. Via our program, UP, we will be diving deep into the topic of sustainability in the solar and storage industries.

This will focus on approaches like the circular economy, cradle to cradle, and others (see pp. 26-28), across our various digital platforms, in our print magazines, and via our roundtable events and webinars.

Together with you – the actors driving the solar and storage industries – we want to define what it means to be truly sustainable; to look at what is already being done in this area; to discuss areas for improvement; and to set sustainability goals, time lines, and evaluation criteria. To open the discussion and take the industry forward in a renewable way.

On the following pages, you can discover Braungart’s vision for the future of solar, find out what is already happening in the area of sustainability on a global level, and read about Volkswagen’s efforts to up its green game.

Join UP! Step UP! Help us shape the sustainability agenda!

Be a thought leader, join UP!

As part of the new UP initiative, pv magazine is rolling out a new series of events to support the next level of our quality campaign. Step UP: Share your ideas and projects via our various digital and print platforms. Partner UP with us. Contact up@pv-magazine.com to discover the many opportunities to promote your Unique Passion!