BSR 2011: Tackling the Sustainability Challenges of Solar

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.