An article by Andreas Wade, First Solar’s Global Director for Sustainability
This article was featured in The Beam #9 — Voices from the Global South. Subscribe to The Beam for more.
In recent months, news about the solar energy industry was dominated by headlines describing record-breaking tariffs, reflecting the fast declining price of solar electricity. In the midst of the global climate protests taking place, led by Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for Future movement, the hope is that further commitments to reducing emissions will lead to further growth in the global solar power portfolio.
As the industry continues to adapt to the present social and economic realities, ambitious regulations in France and discussions on sustainable product policies in the European Union are pushing for more transparency and environmental accountability in solar — setting a best practice example of how to effectively account and factor in externalities in public procurement of electricity, a practice now implemented for large-scale solar, which should have been implemented for fossil-fuel-based generation technologies decades ago (and still isn’t).
While the focus has been on the attractive economics of utility-scale solar, it is often taken for granted that solar energy is inherently environmentally sustainable, leading many to believe that its carbon credentials don’t require scrutiny. The fact is, even solar power plants carry with them a lifecycle environmental footprint. These lifecycle environmental footprints can range from 12g of CO2 per kWh for a facility using thin-film modules, to as much as 80g per kWh — for one using multi-crystalline silicon panels.
According to the European Commission Product Environmental Footprint methodology, upstream processes generate between 80 to just over 95% of the emissions in a PV power plant’s life cycle. This includes the extraction of raw materials, production of semiconductor materials, manufacturing of modules and Balance of Systems (BoS) components, and construction. This staggering figure shows that the onus lies squarely on manufacturers to deliver low carbon solutions to customers.
“With young people around the globe demanding accountability for carbon use, it is up to those in the industry to answer the call and deliver sustainable solutions to power our future generations.”
The comparatively high carbon footprint of multi-crystalline silicon panels is a direct result of the energy-intensive processes required to refine silicon. It is also a direct consequence of the fact that the manufacturing of silicon panels has largely moved from markets where electricity has a low carbon intensity, to countries that often rely on coal and other carbon-intensive forms of electricity generation. As a result, many of today’s commodity PV modules may come with a heavy environmental price tag.
However, as we transition to tender-based renewable energy programs, regulators in Europe and beyond, now have an opportunity to build on the gains made in reducing the overall environmental impact of their power generation portfolios. New policies that make it necessary for independent power producers to competitively bid for generation licences allow governments to ensure that they’re nurturing a renewable energy sector that is both cost and carbon competitive.
How? Following France’s effective pioneering of carbon footprint requirements in utility-scale solar PV tenders a couple of years ago, the European Commission is currently investigating potential eco-design, eco-labelling and green public procurement criteria for solar PV modules, inverters and PV systems.
While today still most competitive tenders focus on price and technical compliance, France’s Agence de L’Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l’Energie (ADEME) has designed a system to ensure that the country derives maximum value — and not just in the financial sense of the term — from its utility-scale solar energy investments. Taking these learning as well as the results of the Product Environmental Footprint Pilot phase for PV electricity, the EU is evaluating the feasibility for the implementation of new sustainable product policies in the coming years.
A recent tender for 200 megawatts (MW) of solar power placed a 15% evaluation premium on projects that used PV modules with low carbon footprints. In other words, developers that wanted to win a Power Purchase Agreement in France needed to compete on more than just price — they needed to compete on the environmental sustainability of their projects. As a number of industries lag far behind in reducing lifetime carbon footprints, low carbon solar PV offers the opportunity for new renewable energy installations to pick up even more of the slack.
While reaction to the policy has been mixed, I would argue that it actually helps the country ensure that its renewable energy program is as environmentally sustainable as it can possibly be. Furthermore, it demonstrates how externalities of electricity generation can be effectively integrated in public procurement processes — demonstrating a viable path for all technologies.
The implementation of these policies falls in line with the demands of Friday’s for Future protesters around Europe, calling for a drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions — as viability for these policy instruments gets proven for solar photovoltaics, it is about time to adopt similar frameworks for the whole energy sector to further accelerate the much needed transformation of the EU energy industry.
France’s progressive policy on reducing the carbon footprint of its solar energy program serves as a precedent for other countries to follow. The tools — such as France’s competitive tender structure and the European initiative to evaluate ecolabels, eco-design and green public procurement criteria for PV modules — already exist.
And as PV is established as the lowest priced electricity, it is time to level the playing field further and include the environmental externalities of electricity generation in this equation. With young people around the globe demanding accountability for carbon use, it is up to those in the industry to answer the call and deliver sustainable solutions to power our future generations.