Overview of the Solar PV Industry
The solar PV industry is expected to grow significantly over the coming years. Supported by government tax incentives and the rapid introduction of new technologies, cumulative solar PV module installations grew by 42 percent in 2009, adding 6,370 MW to bring total global installations to 21,500 MW by the end of 2009.
Conventional solar PV modules based on crystalline silicon remain the most commonly manufactured, but emerging thin film solar PV modules based on cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), and other newly developed materials are poised to gain market share as they become more cost effective. The development of thin film solar PV will be hastened further with the rise of building-integrated PV, which integrates solar panels into building design through conventional rooftop panels or by using new types of panels incorporated into facades and rooftop shingles and tiles. All of these technologies raise questions regarding the environmental and worker impact of the manufacturing and recycling processes. Thin films utilize novel chemical compounds and manufacturing processes (such as nanotechnology) for which there is little data about worker safety or community health impacts.
Solar power is widely regarded as one of the most promising sources of renewable energy, and it is expected to play a key role in sustainable economic development and the reduction of damaging greenhouse gas emissions. The solar industry has great promise, and SVTC hopes that it continues to grow. However, we want to ensure that the solar industry does not leave the same legacy of waste and injustice that has characterized the electronics industry. Most electronic waste (e-waste) is sent to landfills, improperly recycled in prisons, or exported to developing nations such as India, Nigeria, Ghana, and China for dismantling.
Many of the communities where such dangerous low-tech dismantling is done are experiencing serious health problems due to high levels of lead, indium, and other toxic compounds. While solar PV panels have much longer life spans than typical consumer e-waste, it is essential that we act now to ensure long-term sustainability.
SVTC’s Vision for the Future of the Solar Industry
Responsible recycling is essential to the future of the solar industry—without it, improperly discarded panels will create a new wave of toxic e-waste, and many valuable materials will be lost. While a voluntary takeback program called PV Cycle exists in the European Union (E.U.), there are no laws in the E.U., the U.S., or anywhere else in the world, that require solar panel manufacturers to takeback their panels and recycle them responsibly. In addition, no existing laws support companies that demonstrate good recycling practices.
For the solar PV industry to be truly sustainable, a regulatory framework must be put in place that supports sustainable practices, including reductions in the use of toxic materials and mandatory takeback and recycling by industry.
We envision a solar industry that:
Pursues innovative approaches to reducing the toxic chemicals used in panel manufacturing.
Implements and monitors equitable labor standards throughout its supply chains.
Takes responsibility for the environmental and health impacts of solar products throughout their lifecycles, including adherence to a mandatory policy for responsible recycling.
SVTC will continue to support and engage the solar PV industry on workers’ rights, environmental, health, and safety issues. The industry is already dedicated to the goal of environmental sustainability—we hope that it will be able to meet the high environmental standards it has set for itself and develop a strong reputation for corporate responsibility.
Please read our report here.