Reducing Solar’s Environmental Impact Through Ecolabels

 

Opinion

It is undeniable that easy access to energy has provided tremendous benefits to humankind over the last several decades. But that access has come at a price – one that society only discovered after the fact. From the thousand-year half-lives of spent nuclear fuel to the climate change impact of fossil fuels, access to energy has had a high environmental cost. Renewable energy, especially solar, seeks to provide that same access without the environmental cost. But what is the environmental impact of solar panels and inverters? Is society once again seeking to benefit from an energy source without understanding and addressing its environmental impact? Not this time, writes Green Electronics Council CEO Nancy Gillis.

Increasing use of renewable energy, especially solar, offers a tremendous benefit to society. But this can only be realized if the solar panels and other vital components are produced sustainably. No longer can the negative environmental impact of an energy source be decoupled from its societal benefit. The Green Electronics Council (GEC) worked with NSF International, a leading standards development organization, to develop criteria for sustainable PV modules and inverters. GEC was driven by the desire not to repeat the energy mistakes of the past.

GEC has been in existence for over a decade as a non-profit that leverages large-scale purchasing power, both public and private sector, as a demand driver for more sustainable technology. It understands that by deciding to buy sustainable technology, institutional purchasers can really “move the needle” toward a more sustainable world. But there is little gain in stimulating demand if there is no product to meet it. GEC also helps manufacturers understand technology specific sustainability impacts, commit to addressing those impacts, and act to change operational, supply chain and procurement behaviors.

EPEAT, the ecolabel managed by GEC, is used by more large-scale purchasers of technology products than any other ecolabel globally. An ecolabel is one of the easier ways that purchasers can identify and purchase credible sustainable products. In the case of EPEAT, not only does it spell out the lifecycle-based criteria a product or manufacturer must meet, it also has the verification requirements that identify what is accepted as “proof” that the criteria are met, and it relies on third-party conformity assurance to validate product claims. Contrary to regulations, which disincentivize certain behaviors, ecolabels provide manufacturers an opportunity to innovate and competitively differentiate their products on sustainability factors. Policymakers can incentivize industry towards more sustainable behaviors by supporting the use of credible ecolabels in public procurements.

Buyer benefits

When used by enough purchasers globally, ecolabels provide a consistent set of requirements for manufacturers, thereby reducing supply chain transaction costs associated with manufacturers having to meet different requirements in various markets. Rather than needing to take a “leap of faith” on what a purchaser might require, manufacturers can be confident that by having met the ecolabel criteria, they have already met the purchaser’s requirements.

There are three main factors behind EPEAT’s position as a leading ecolabel. Firstly, GEC’s innovative Dynamic Criteria Development Process. This inclusive process invites all stakeholders to the table, starts with a research packet identifying currently understood lifecycle based environmental and social impacts, focuses on developing criteria that will have an impact at scale, and seeks to finish the process in 18 months or less.

Secondly, EPEAT is a type-1 ecolabel. This means that product claims have been validated by reputable international certification firms including CESI, CTC, Dekra, TÜV Rheinland, UL, and VDE. GEC itself manages a third-party validation firm focused on meeting the needs of small and medium enterprises to ensure that purchasers are able to access products that meet both sustainability and socio-economic procurement targets. And finally, thanks to an online registry at epeat.net, products that have met EPEAT criteria can be easily be viewed by potential buyers at no cost.

Forbes, in a February 2020 article stated, “Of all renewable energy generation, solar PV is expected to grow the fastest from now to 2050.” The launch of the new EPEAT PV modules and inverters (PVMI) category, expected in September 2020, offers the solar industry the option to take a leadership position in making sure that solar energy is recognized as a renewable energy source that isn’t originating from non-sustainable technology. The EPEAT PVMI criteria address full lifecycle of sustainability impacts, both environmental and social, including some of specific interest to public sector purchasers.

Climate change

It is recognized that photovoltaic modules can account for over half of the lifecycle climate impacts (CO2 equivalents) of a solar installation. The EPEAT PVMI category criteria therefore focus on the use of high global warming potential (GWP) gases in any manufacturing or reactor cleaning operations. And if high-GWP gas was used, that gases were captured in a specifically designed abatement system that is properly operated and maintained. The intention of these criteria is to prevent the use of high-GWP gases that contribute to climate change or, if that is not possible, to facilitate the destruction of high-GWP gas emissions so as to prevent their further harm to the environment.

The PVMI category also includes criteria that aim to minimize the use of hazardous chemicals and protect worker health and safety. These criteria include declarable substances, such as lead and lead compounds, that a manufacturer should declare to downstream manufacturers if these substances are present in the product at a reportable level. Such declarations allow downstream manufacturers to anticipate and limit employee exposures to hazardous chemicals and also incentivizes the upstream manufacturer to look for safer alternatives.

Manufacturers must declare the amount of recycled materials in their products, and the EPEAT PVMI category criteria incentivizes the manufacturer to increase use of recycled materials. This emphasis on recycled content seeks to drive innovation towards product circularity. It has been estimated that emphasis on material recovery and reuse now could provide enough raw materials by 2050 to produce 2 billion new panels. The alternative is that, by 2050, PV panel waste is predicted to exceed 10% of the global electronic waste stream.

The PVMI criteria also incentivizes innovation in energy and water efficiency by recognizing manufacturers who are pursuing improved energy efficiency in their production processes and who are actively working to reduce water use. Such companies lead the way with solar technology that consume fewer natural resources.

The PV industry has the opportunity to show that we have learned from our past mistakes and that solar energy refuses to be an energy source that comes at the price of People and Planet. The forthcoming EPEAT PVMI category provides those tasked with buying renewable energy the means to specify that the energy be truly renewable, i.e. that it does not originate from unsustainable hardware. As the renewable energy technology expected to grow the fastest from now to 2050, solar PV is uniquely positioned to be recognized as a sector comprised of innovative leaders who refuse to have their products be anything less than sustainable.

Green Electronics Council EPEAT Ecolabel drives innovation

EPEAT is a tiered ecolabel that has both required and optional criteria. Products must meet all required criteria to be EPEAT registered, but manufacturers can choose which of the optional criteria their products meet.

Products meeting more optional criteria are not necessarily more sustainable. Instead, products meeting more optional criteria reflect a manufacturer’s commitment to sustainability and their desire to innovate to address both the environmental and social lifecycle impacts of their products.

By Nancy Gillis, CEO of the Green Electronics Council (GEC), a mission-driven non-profit that seeks to achieve a world of only sustainable information technology. GEC manages EPEAT, the leading global ecolabel for IT products.  Before joining GEC, she served as the Global Lead for Resilient and Responsible Supply Chains at Ernst & Young (EY).  Prior to that, she served as the director of the Federal Supply Chain Office at the General Services Administration (GSA), the public procurement agency for the U.S. government.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine or Green Building Africa.

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