Solar is already a world leader in sustainability and is only getting better

Sustainability is a top priority for SolarPower Europe in 2021. The Coordinator of our Sustainability Workstream, Raffaele Rossi, and the Coordinator of our Agrisolar Workstream, Miguel Herrero, discuss sustainability in the solar sector and SolarPower Europe’s upcoming activities.  

Solar stands out among all other energy sources as a sustainability leader, and the European Green Deal is an excellent opportunity to position solar as a central pillar of the EU energy transition within a framework of sustainability. Sustainability is a core topic of SolarPower Europe’s work in 2021, indeed the theme of this year’s SolarPower Summit is “Driving Sustainable Change”. The Sustainability Workstream is hard at work on a number of activities dedicated to enhancing sustainability in the solar sector. Most significantly, we are preparing the Solar Sustainability Best Practices Benchmark, to investigate key environmental, social, and governance challenges for the solar industry, and to collect best practices across the entire value chain. Specific attention is given to the topic of supply chain transparency, with the aim of developing industry standards for improved traceability and full disclosure of environmental and social aspects in the supply chain.  

Technical advances in solar have been rapid and continuous, leading to solar being one of the energy sources with the smallest carbon footprint. Between the early 1990s and 2016, carbon emissions from solar decreased by a phenomenal 86%, and in the last five years, the life cycle emissions of solar have dropped even lower. Solar produces 96% less GHG emissions than coal, and 93% less GHG emissions than gas. But the environmental benefits of solar are far more than a small carbon footprint. Solar shows clear advantages also in terms of water and air emissions, and impacts on ecosystems and human health – it creates a holistically sustainable framework.  

Even the energy required during the production of a PV system is quickly made up for once the PV system is in operation. With today’s technology it takes less than a year for a solar module to generate as much energy as was used to produce it; over the course of the module’s lifetime, it produces over thirty times the energy needed for its production.   

Raw material availability will not limit solar’s growth. Over the years, the ratio of silicon and silver per watt has reduced significantly and will continue to decrease in the future. Other materials used in production – such as steel, concrete, glass, plastic, and aluminium – are commonplace and their production levels are driven by demand rather than supply.  

Innovative solutions like floating solar and Agrisolar further enhance solar’s versatility and sustainability. For instance, Agrisolar reduces emissions from the energy sector and promotes more sustainable agricultural practices, driving rural development. The potential for Agrisolar in the EU is immense: if solar were to be deployed on only 1% of Europe’s arable land, its technical capacity would be over 900 GW. 

Agrisolar can foster several sustainable synergies beneficial to agriculture and rural communities – increasing land-use and resource efficiency, preserving of agricultural land, reducing water consumption, improving crop yields, and contributing to the socio-economic welfare of rural communities. These synergies are maximised when Agrisolar projects respect sustainability criteria. SolarPower Europe is working with agricultural stakeholders to define these criteria through the Agrisolar Best Practices Guidelines. These guidelines will help farmers, PV developers, regulators, and other stakeholders to ensure that Agrisolar projects are agronomically, ecologically, and socio-economically sustainable.

Photo: (c) BayWa r.e.

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