Environmental Regulations on PV Manufacturing Likely Just a Matter of Time

Jun 8, 2014

Additional contributors include Noreen Howat & Matthew Morton

Photovoltaic Array

According to a recent study from Northwestern University and US DOE Argonne National Laboratory, polysilicon-based solar panel manufacturing is greener in Europe than in China.  This is based on a  life cycle analysis which shows that the carbon footprint of a polysilicon solar panel made in China is twice that of one made in Europe – mainly due to coal-based electricity consumption in China. This is also without taking into consideration emissions from transporting the product to end-markets mainly in Europe and the US.

As solar generated power continues to grow and accounts for a larger proportion of the energy mix, it is probably just a matter of time before governments start to pay more attention to the environmental impact of the solar industry and we start to see regulations on its manufacture, particularly around how certain chemicals are handled and disposed of, minimum emissions reductions and recycling/disposal of spent panels.

Similar debates around the sustainability of biofuels has been raging for several years, to the extent that biofuels in Europe now have to prove that they achieve a minimum reduction in greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions and the more efficient second generation biofuels count double towards meeting renewable energy targets.  Are we to expect a similar debate around the environmental benefits of solar? What impact would this have on the trade flow of polysilicon and other components in the PV value chain?

The potential environmental downsides to solar PV, in terms of both final life cycle GHG savings, and of the use of hazardous materials in the PV production value chain, has been raised by opponents of renewable energy expansion more than it has been addressed by the solar industry as a whole.  Despite piecemeal efforts in recent years, the solar industry would likely benefit from acting to ensure maximum clarity on this important issue, as solar PV is rolled out worldwide, and the impact of the sector’s rapid growth exposes it to increased scrutiny from governments and public alike.