Solar Sustainability Best Practices Benchmark

Foreword Welcome to the Solar Sustainability Best Practices Benchmark of SolarPower Europe.
This report, stemming from the collaboration of industry experts in the SolarPower Europe Sustainability Workstream, presents the results of sustainability case studies and best practices along the solar value chain. Following the publication of the industry’s first sustainability leadership standard for photovoltaic modules and inverters in 2019 and its inclusion into the EPEAT registry for sustainable electronics, as well as the ongoing regulatory discussions around Ecodesign and Energy Labeling in the European Union, the report takes a closer look at material sustainability and ESG topics in the PV value chain and how the European and international PV industry is addressing them.This study aims to provide an overview on sectorial best practices, which fill the sometimes abstract frameworks of standards with life and demonstrate that the industry is continuously evaluating and improving approaches to sustainability. This work would not have been possible without the passionate support from the workstream members and other contributors over the last couple of months – starting off beginning of the year with a materiality evaluation and following through with a comprehensive portray of case studies and best practices, addressing those topics.

Sustainability considerations in the solar sector In 2021, solar energy became the most cost -competitive and versatile energy source globally, and is now positioned in line with the Paris Agreement and objectives of the European Green Deal, to play a leading role in making Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent. According to SolarPower Europe’s 100% renewable study, solar electricity could deliver more than 60% of Europe’s electricity generation by 2050. Solar’s impressive growth over the past years was also driven by the competitive sustainability profile of solar with high socio-economic benefits, which are inextricably linked to its sustainability attributes. Sustainability is a complex concept. An often-quoted definition comes from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Renewable energies are an accurate response to this concept, because, contrarily to conventional energy generation sources, the production of energy happens without depleting fuel resources. At the same time, renewable energy technologies, like any other product, need to be manufactured. It implies that energy and materials are utilised in the production process. Therefore, a straight-forward approach to improving the solar PV sector’s sustainability performance is to minimise energy and material consumption during the manufacturing phase.

Carbon footprint Context and background Solar PV’s main sustainability contribution is to decarbonise electricity generation and thus achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly the Goal 13 on “Climate Action”. Considering the greenhouse gas emissions generated throughout its life cycle, solar produced about 96% less GHG emissions than coal and 93% less than gas in 2010 (Figure 2). Solar PV is poised to become one of the main pillars of the world’s future energy supply. Without solar, reaching the Paris climate goals is simply not possible. For this reason, PV technology must be rapidly deployed and solar will continue its global success story.

Circularity The rapid growth of the solar industry is an exemplary case study for the potential of renewable energy and was significantly enabled by innovative industrial solutions to reduce cost and increase product performance. With average product lifetimes of about thirty years, the solar industry in Europe – which is a young industry – has not yet been facing waste streams justifying a proactive integration of circular economy requirements. Nevertheless, solar product and component manufacturers have been constantly looking into ways to increase the recyclability or end-of-life management of their products. Thanks to the long lifetime of PV products, today the ratio between modules reaching their end of life and modules annually installed is lower than 1%. However, this challenge is set to arise in the medium and long term, with the PV waste stream growing considerably after 2030 and eventually reaching installation levels. Some estimates suggest that cumulative PV waste could amount to as much as 8 million metric tonnes by 2030 and 60-70 million tonnes by 2050, equivalent to 3-16% of total e-waste produced annually today (Figure 6). To match the growing volume of PV module waste in Europe, even before it accelerates around 2030, expansion of dedicated PV recycling capacity will be needed.

The European market has led the transition to halogen-free backsheets, using full PET or polyolefinic backsheets that contain no fluorinated substances. A vibrant European manufacturing base of material producers, film converters and module manufacturers such as Coveme, DuPont Teijin Films and DSM Advanced Solar now leads the way globally in the use of these technologies, in line with the EU’s vision of “safe-by-design chemicals” being used as substitutes for hazardous substances. Halogen-free backsheets significantly reduce the amount of hazardous materials in PV modules, offer a significantly lower carbon footprint, reduce end-of-life waste-to-energy incineration costs and enable closed loop recycling of both industrial as well as post-consumer waste. With most of EU module manufacturers using halogen-free backsheets, this makes an excellent case study for how the right product selection can help deliver the EU’s sustainability principles.

Sustainable supply chain In the last decade, the growing focus on sustainability by citizens has pushed both public and private sector to accelerate the transition towards a sustainable world. To create shared value and promote the production of sustainable energy, sustainability considerations should be not limited to a company’s internal value chain, but should also be implemented to external supply chain actors, considering the extended value chain of the product. The integration of sustainability principles in the business-case of private companies is an ongoing, unstoppable process. Environmental sustainability is one of the bigger focus points, considering the attention that climate change has gained and the importance of GHG emission reductions to avoid the planet’s temperature increase. Nevertheless, social sustainability has also gained more and more attention, especially topics related to respect of Human Rights. Taking into account the rights of communities and people is key, for example by guaranteeing just and favourable working conditions but also the rejection of forced or compulsory labour and child labour.

principles of redesign by avoiding waste and pollution and keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems. The solar PV value chain is very diversified and encompasses a variety of actors along the production process. An overview of the production process for typical PV products is provided in Chapter 1. The structure of the value chain has several different configurations, due to the coexistence of highly vertically integrated players and other actors that rather focus on only one of few steps of the production process. Such variety makes the supply chain analysis somewhat complicated, given that no overall structure can be identified. Nevertheless, one general challenge that often arises is the presence of supply chain players beyond the first tier. This means that procurement policies need to look at the “supplier of the supplier” in order to increase their effectiveness. The global scale of solar PV production makes these activities more challenging, since they need to deal with different jurisdictions, regulations, norms and standards.

Biodiversity in large-scale solar Large-scale solar PV plants provide the economies of the scale and volumes needed to accelerate the transition to clean, renewable energy sources and further the cost-competitiveness of solar compared to conventional energy sources. To reap these benefits in a fully sustainable manner, several aspects related to the impacts of large-scale solar on wildlife, biodiversity and land use need to be considered.

Agrisolar best practices in Germany The Klein Rheide solar park in Germany has been developed looking at the nexus between renewable energy generation, biodiversity and agriculture. Wattmanufactur’s subsidiary Osterhof built this 23 MW solar park on the fallow land created by previous gravel extraction, and created a habitat for 450 plants – including 17 on the Red List – as well as native wild animals, insects and amphibians. An overview of how the different types of species interact with the solar park is provided in Figure 13. The project also includes secure corridors for the safe passage of wildlife, 5 wild bee-hives, 5 bat nests, 15 bird houses, and grazing areas for local shepherds.

With a total capacity of 500 MW, Iberdrola’s Nuñez de Balboa PV plant is the largest solar park in Europe to date. Its construction shows how utility-scale solar projects can be sustainably integrated into the ecological contexts and the local cultures. The solar park is in a traditional and high ecological value habitat in the Iberian Peninsula, the ecosystem of the dehesa, which is formed by isolated oak trees and large areas of pasture. This is an ecosystem with high value biodiversity, with plant and animal species associated with it. This habitat depends on human action, which traditionally shaped it for use as feed for livestock. The main challenge of this project was integrating the plant into the environment. To do so, Iberdrola carried out an environmental inventory which helped select a zone that would affect it as little as possible. In view of the wealth of species in the zone, environmental monitoring was carried out during the construction phase. Sustainability actions throughout the project design and construction included a wide range of activities for the improvement of habitats and vegetation. The growth of native species was favoured and the impact of invasive species was reduced. Measures for birdlife conservation were also taken.

Planning and designing for public acceptance The global transition to renewable energies combined with the growing urbanisation of European territories intensifies the competition for land. The situation becomes especially challenging for countries with high population densities and high electricity consumption per capita. On the one hand, the scarcity of land leads to conflicts with existing land use. On the other hand, people are developing resistance to new plants being developed in their area, despite fundamentally supporting renewable energies – the so called “NIMBYism” – Not In My Backyard opposition. However, to achieve the EU-wide climate targets, a massive addition of renewable energy plants is necessary and was acknowledged as a no-regret option by the European Commission’s 2050 long-term strategy. As the most versatile and cost-competitive energy source in history, ground-mounted solar should drive the bulk of this transition in the coming years. While rooftop solar is not exposed to public acceptance challenges, the development of large-scale PV plants can create concerns among local stakeholders, who want to ensure that the project will bring social, environmental, and economic benefits to their communities, or who are concerned about changes of the landscape in their neighbourhood.

GroenLeven B.V. developed solutions to reduce CO2 while constructing large-scale solar parks. All recently built Floating PV parks in the Netherlands, including the 27.4 MW Bomhofsplas park, were constructed with their own generated electricity. This means that the solar park is literally self-supplying its energy need during construction time. All tools and appliances as well as vehicles on the construction site were electric. The power that was stored in the battery was enough to charge all tools and construction site facilities during nighttime. In addition, the solar battery system was put to the test by using it for rather harsh loads like electric heating. The workers’ containers were kept warm, powered by the solar battery system. The battery storage system used at Bomhofsplas were loaned.

Human rights The nature of solar PV, as a global product with a complex value chain, means that the sector operates in regions with very different social, economic, political, and cultural contexts. Regardless of the diversity of geographies and conditions of companies’ global operations, solar companies have a duty to ensure and promote the respect of fundamental human rights, specifically in regard to the rights of workers. These actions must be carried out within business relationships with contractors, suppliers, and any other partners, with a particular focus on conflict-affected and high-risk contexts. In accordance with international legislation and agreements – such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Labour Organisation’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work – all companies must carefully monitor supply chain labour practices and relations with local communities at large. This involves a proactive stance towards actions including, but not limited to, rejection of forced labour and child labour, respect for diversity and non-discrimination, freedom of association and collective bargaining, health and safety, fair working conditions, respect for community rights, absence of corruption, and respect of privacy.

most effective and reliable means of validation. The key areas that are accounted for within the SA8000 certification are presented in Figure 19. Internally stepping up procurement and supply chain activities to sustainably integrate all processes, implementing ISO 20400 Sustainable Procurement and getting certified by an external party such as an auditing firm are also considered to be best practices. This will help to manage the performance of all suppliers, ensuring social responsibility, sustainability, and ethical sourcing, which in turn serves to provide assurance to shareholders and stakeholders.

Supply chain transparency The importance of responsible supply chain management, described in Chapter 3, reveals the corresponding need of understanding a product’s geographic origin, its chain of custody (the various stages of the value chain), and the conditions of production at each of these stages. In order to have a full picture of the characteristics of the product and all of the sustainability dimensions connected to its production, companies should strive to enhance transparency in their supply chains.


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