BSR 2011: Tackling the Sustainability Challenges of Solar

BSR 2011: Tackling the Sustainability Challenges of Solar

In addition to recognizing and addressing the sustainability challenges that any young industry faces, solar companies has additional hurdles that arise from its position in the energy industry: How do you successfully communicate, much less overcome, the environmental impacts of a green energy source?

That was one question posed at a session today during the BSR Conference. Answering the question -- and raising many more of their own -- was a distinguished panel of solar industry leaders and analysts, who came together to share what their firms have learned about solar's sustainability.

At the same time, the group was also seeking insight from conference attendees whose industries have long since undergone many of the challenges solar is just now facing.

Amy Galland, Research Director at As You Sow, kicked off the session with a presentation about the main sustainability issues that the solar industry faces, as well as the relative impacts of all renewables compared to fossil fuels.

Galland said that, in the course of her research for a soon-to-be-published report on sustainability in solar, she found that the main issues facing the industry include materials and supply chain challenges, particularly with the forthcoming regulations around conflict minerals kicking in sometime next year.

Additionally, there are safety and corporate culture issues that the solar industry faces. Galland cited as an example the death of a solar installer who fell from a rooftop in Northern California last year and was working without a safety harness. In the wake of that accident, Solar City has made significant investments in safety.

Contrast that response to how Massey Energy responded to the mine disaster in 2010, when Massey fought hard against any tighter safety regulations in the wake of the explosion that killed 29 workers; Massey's CEO even went so far as to blame God for the disaster, Galland said.

Galland's presentation came down to putting the impacts of solar and other renewables in perspective with those of fossil fuel industries.

"In order to get a gigawat of electricity from a solar installation, you need 310 square meters of space. In order to get it from coal, you need 320 square meters," Galland said. "The problem is, once you get the coal out [once], you can't get it again."

And when it comes to the impacts that solar does have -- whether in terms of land use or materials use, or any other area -- the industry is both challenged by and benefited from its relative youth, as well as its ingrained mission of a clean energy future.

There are some differences within solar (from other industries) in terms of culture," explained Leann Speta, Supply Chain Sustainability Manager at Sunpower. Within solar power it's radically different than her previous experience in the electronics industry, "because our mission is to change the world and how do we change the way the world is powered. "

And solar has benefited from a kind of "if I only knew then what I know now" perspective -- as other energy industries came into maturity over the last two centuries, they didn't have the benefit of understand the environmental impacts of every aspect of their work.

Lisa Krueger, Vice President of Sustainable Development at First Solar, said: "There hasn't been a rigor about thinking of what happens at end of life for other energy souces -- coal, nuclear, etc. -- that there has been [for solar]."

That said, there are still plenty of challenges facing solar's material impacts. Wei-Tai Kwok, Vice President of Marketing at Suntech America, summed it up by saying, "How do you eliminate lead from a product that needs to be outdoors for 25 years with good performance?"

In other words, managing the materials that go into a mobile phone with an anticipated two-year lifespan is one thing, but a product that is expected to endure a generation of the elements brings an entirely new order of challenges.

And the solar energy industry is working on those challenges. Speta explained that within the Solar Energy Industry Association, there are groups working on mapping out just what the best practices should be for sustainability within the industry, especially as it pertains to suppliers.

But there is still a long road ahead, whether looking at the process to create a code of conduct for solar-industry supply chains that achieves the same successes as the Electronics Industry Citizenship Council's well established code of conduct, or how to communicate sustainability to stakeholders?

Kwok, whose company is 10 years old, said Suntech published its first CSR report last year, and it was in Chinese, intended for a Chinese audience. When someone at the company suggested that it be translated into English and presented as the global CSR report, the response from stakeholders made it clear that there was a wide gap between what might work in China and what the Western world expects from CSR reporting.

Along those lines, Krueger said that First Solar, and the industry as a whole, is actively seeking feedback from their stakeholders about what they expect to see in a solar sustainability report.

"We're going to tell our kind of story about the climate, why we're passionate about what we do, and what our priorities are," Krueger said. But, in order to do it right companies need to know "what the expectations are for us, in terms of providing a product [or] looking at lifecycle energy use."

Although the need for dramatic scaling of clean energy is readily apparent, the panel at BSR also showed that the business side of solar has as much progress to make as the technological side in order to maximize -- and properly communicate about -- its beneficial environmental impacts.

Solar panel photo via Shutterstock.