Taking care: Sustainability in solar

This article is the sixth entry in SolarPower Europe’s 10-part blog series on ‘What’s Hot in Solar’.
“Compared to any conventional energy generation source, solar shows clear benefits in numerous dimensions – not only in terms of cost and flexibility in fighting climate change, but also in terms of environmental footprint at large,” Raffaele Rossi reword my essay as Policy Analyst at SolarPower Europe

It is no doubt that climate change has been one of the strongest drivers of renewable energy deployment in light of the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions under the limits set out in the Paris Agreement. Compared to any conventional energy generation source, solar shows clear benefits in numerous dimensions – not only in terms of cost and flexibility in fighting climate change, but also in terms of environmental footprint at large: addressing water scarcity and the use of natural resources, as well as the health impacts of air pollution, which are sustainability challenges solar often provides the answer to. Looking at the broader picture, solar delivers comprehensive benefits from a social, economic and environmental perspective – the so-called triple bottom line of sustainability.

At socio-economic level, solar is a technology that has a strong positive effect on employment, creating more jobs per installed watt than any other power generation source, both fossil- and renewable-based. The large majority of jobs are created downstream, which means these are local jobs that contribute to socio-economic development – even in under-developed, rural areas. In parallel, at the macroeconomic scale, PV deployment is particularly valuable for net energy importing countries which can decrease their dependence on others, creating energy security at home and avoiding costly energy imports.
With the cost of solar modules having decreased by around 96% since the turn of the century, solar has become one of the cheapest power generation sources today. Therefore, countries and subnational actors will increasingly rely on it as an affordable, low impact technology to meet their sustainability and climate targets. But alongside this dramatic drop in cost – which is continuing – solar is constantly improving its performance on an environmental level as well.

Across its full life cycle, solar currently generates 20 grams CO2eq per kWh, down from 143 in 1992 – equalling an 86% decrease in carbon emissions. This positions PV as one of the power generation sources with the lowest climate change impact. In parallel, thanks to technological improvements and increased cell efficiency, today, solar’s energy payback time (EPBT) is consistently below one year in sunnier regions. This means that, given a warranted lifetime of around 30 years, a panel throughout its service life will generate more than 30 times the electricity it needs for manufacturing.

Global PV industry trends also indicate steady improvements in material and manufacturing efficiency. While the availability of commodity material needs will not pose a threat for massive deployment of solar technology, critical raw materials used in PV manufacturing, such as silver and silicon, are increasingly being replaced, reduced and recycled. Looking at the broader picture, a systematic circular approach is a necessary step to ensure long-term sustainability for solar. Applying circular principles along the whole value chain implies not only a lower dependence on critical raw materials, but also actions in terms of design for circularity, reduction of production waste, lower energy use for cell and module manufacturing, qualitative refurbishment of panels and efficient end-of-life management.

Recycling of PV modules, inverters and batteries is already an established practice in a number of markets. In some legislation, such as in the EU, it is mandatory to set up take-back and treatment schemes under an extended producer responsibility (EPR) approach. While technical recycling yields of up to 90% of the weight are obtained in existing recycling plants, the low waste stream volumes being generated today pose a significant economic challenge. Due to its relatively long lifetime, the amount of PV entering the end-of-life stage is less than 1% of the total installed capacity. This situation is set to change quite considerably in the future, enabling the creation of economies of scale and improving the recycling options.

One should bear in mind that sustainability is not just an intrinsic feature of solar but can become the core of a business strategy to create competitive advantages. There are several cases of successful market positioning as producers of PV products with low environmental impact and high quality – this is the case of First Solar, which besides offering CdTe modules characterised by very low carbon emissions, also guarantees take back of every product sold on the market. In this regard, the NSF 457 Sustainability Leadership Standard for Photovoltaic Modules, launched in November 2017, is an industry-led voluntary standard that sets sustainability performance requirements for PV manufacturers.

SolarPower Europe’s Sustainability Task Force has launched Solar Facts, covering Cost, Sustainability, Materials, Employment and job creation, and Recycling that are available to download from our website.

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