Renewables win exclusion from EU toxic law

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The renewable energy sector was in high spirits yesterday (2 June) as MEPs decided to exclude windmills and solar panels from an EU law aimed at curbing the use of toxic chemicals in household electric and electronic goods.

The European Parliament's environment committee amended a proposal on the recast Directive on the Restriction of Hazardous Substances in electrical and electronic equipment (RoHS).

The directive currently applies to household goods and covers everything from TVs to toasters and computers.

The recast intended to widen the directive's scope from household appliances to all electrical and electronic devices, unless specifically excluded.

But the prospect of an open scope had made renewable energy producers anxious as they were concerned about being subjected to legislation that the fossil fuel industry would not have to comply with, putting them at a competitive disadvantage.

Relief

MEPs seemed to take on board the industry's concerns and specifically spelled out that chemicals used in the manufacturing of renewable energy products, such as solar panels or windmills, should be granted exclusion from the directive.

Other products which won exclusion from the directive include large-scale installations and industrial tools, and material used for military vehicles and equipment.

All exclusions will be subject to a review clause by December 2014, the committee said, adding that this could provide an opportunity for the European Commission to suggest further exclusions.

The committee vote came as a relief to the solar industry, which has been battling to prove that harmful substance bans originally designed for disposable household devices should not apply to the renewable sector (EurActiv 22/04/10).

Substances listed for further evaluation

MEPs also listed a number of substances which are currently not restricted as priorities for further review, with a view to a possible ban in the future. These include halogenated flame retardants and PVC.

The European Commission will carry out an assessment of substances for future restriction, assisted by MEPs and EU member states, who will also be able to propose substances for examination, the committee said.

The environment committee's report will be voted on by the full Parliament in its July plenary.

Positions: 

The renewable industry welcomed its exclusion from the directive, arguing it guarantees a level playing field with fossil fuels.

The European Renewable Energies Federation (EREF) said including renewable energies in the scope of RoHS would benefit coal, oil and gas, which should each be assessed in terms of their environmental profile.

"It does not make sense to treat renewable energy technology like windmills, heat pumps or solar panels as if they were sandwich toasters or DVD players. Renewables are competing with fossil and nuclear energy production and not with household equipment," said EREF President Rainer Hinrichs-Rahlwes.

First Solar, a leading producer of thin-film photovoltaic modules, said the Parliament had acknowledged the need for consistency across European legislation, helping the EU to meet its renewable energy targets. Exclusion from the scope of RoHS will "put renewable energies on a level playing field with conventional energy, increase energy security and accelerate the shift to a more sustainable society," it said in a statement.

AmCham EU, which represents American business in the EU, and TechAmerica Europe, a trade group representing the US ICT sector, expressed concerns over the Parliament's support for an open scope, which they said has not been subjected to an impact assessment.

They argued that the decision to include all electrical and electronic equipment would create uncertainty and additional costs for businesses, with the risk of cancelling out environmental benefits achieved with other amendments.

"No environmental benefit has been identified, no specific environmental concern has been raised as a valid reason for such a significant change, and no impact assessment has been conducted to evaluate the costs and benefits of this proposed scope expansion," said Meglena Mihova, chair of the environment committee at AmCham EU.

The European Brominated Flame Retardant Industry Panel (EBFRIP) regretted the decision to list organobrominated substances among those set for priority assessment for future bans.

"While such a listing has no regulatory impact, it nevertheless discriminates against those substances listed and contradicts the EU's own scientific assessments and the principle of individual chemicals assessment under REACH. Moreover, amendments adopted by the committee on the criteria for future additions to RoHS lack sufficient science-based criteria and could contradict future decisions under REACH," said Willem Hofland, EBFRIP chairman.

The European People's Party group in the European Parliament argued that any chemical ban should be dealt with in accordance with the REACH directive. They opposed phasing out any new chemicals.

"At this stage, there is not enough evidence to justify further bans. We should first introduce a clear and transparent  methodology before restricting substances and ensure coherence with the REACH Directive," said MEP Bogusław Sonik (EPP, Poland).

Timeline: 
  • July: Parliament to vote on environment committee's recommendation in plenary.
  • Dec. 2014: European Commission to review products excluded from directive.
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