Solar industry divided over EU toxic substances law

Solar panel manufacturers are fighting to be excluded from EU legislation restricting the use of dangerous chemicals in electronic products. But some voices are calling for greater scrutiny of the industry, illustrating a technology war between rival companies.

The European solar industry has begun a campaign to exclude photovoltaic solar panels from the recast directive on the restriction of certain hazardous substances (RoHS), which is currently being debated by the EU institutions.

It argues that having to comply with bans and restrictions originally applied to electrical and electronic household appliances would harm the industry's competitiveness without offering any health benefits, while slowing the EU's fight against climate change.     

The directive's revision engulfed the solar industry last autumn after Sweden proposed to extend its scope to cover all electrical and electronic equipment. The amendment would bring solar panels within the scope of the directive unless specifically excluded.

The open scope was not part of the original proposal from the European Commission, which consequently did not carry out an impact assessment into it either.

"If solar modules were included in this, we believe it would do much more harm to the environment, society and industry compared to the current situation, where our industry has already in place voluntary recycling programmes for all the different modules which are sold on the market place," said Winfried Hoffman, vice-president of Applied Materials, a semiconductor manufacturer, and vice-president of the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA).

Considering the fact that the minimum lifetime of a solar module is 25 years at the moment, it would not be "very logical" to integrate modules into a framework designed to regulate products with short lifespans, which are likely to be dumped at landfills.

Widening the scope of the directive would affect the renewable energy industry at large, as manufacturers of equipment like wind turbines, fuel cells and geothermal power systems would have to demonstrate compliance with the legislation too.

Concerns have already been raised that the new legislation could put renewable energies at a disadvantage compared to fossil fuels, which do not have to comply with the requirements.

MEPs have been divided over whether solar panels should be included in the directive. Some argue that they should be as environmentally friendly as possible, while others think they should be eligible for exemptions or exclusions.

But the industry would rather see full exclusion from the legislation, arguing that having to apply for renewal every four years would introduce uncertainty to the market. At present companies give their modules warranties of at least 25 years or more.

A draft European Parliament report, to be voted upon in the environment committee in June, proposes to give an exemption to cadmium in thin-film photovoltaic panels based on cadmium telluride. It argues that the impact of substitution with more energy-intensive and technologically inferior alternatives would outweigh the benefits of using no cadmium.

Counter attack

But not everybody in the industry agrees that voluntary recycling schemes are enough to justify an exclusion from the legislation.

The Non-Toxic Solar Alliance (NTSA), which describes itself as a not-for-profit advocacy group including members of the solar industry, argues that any industry efforts to recycle photovoltaic (PV) modules containing toxic materials require a "sufficient safety guarantee". It wants RoHS to regulate the PV industry to ensure that standards do not encourage the use of toxic materials.

"Keeping modules containing toxic substances in a closed cycle over decades constitutes a significant and yet unsolved challenge," argues Jan Kallmorgen, the NTSA chairman.

Speaking to EURACTIV, he argued that the safe use of toxic substances like cadmium and lead in PV modules cannot be guaranteed based on current scientific knowledge.

"There are no independent and public studies available that prove with certainty that the use of toxic substances in PV modules constitutes no risks. Risk factors to be considered include leakage, breakage and fire," he added.

In 2005, the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) organised a peer review of major studies on the environmental, health and safety aspects of cadmium telluride PV systems. It concluded that large-scale use of such modules doesn't present a risk to public health or environment under normal operating conditions.

The NTSA believes that compliance with RoHS would accelerate research and development in non-toxic PV technologies and improve the industry's capacity to meet the EU's climate goals.

"There are many PV technologies in compliance with RoHS that do not contain any of the toxic materials currently restricted by the directive. It is important to understand that CdTe is not the only thin film technology and that clean thin film alternatives, such as amorphous SI or cadmium free CIS/GICS, are available right now and more manufacturers are getting ready to enter the market," Kallmorgen said.

A turf war?

The debate has opposed producers of thin film modules like current PV market leader First Solar, and those of crystalline silicon, which make up around 80% of the market.

The NTSA sides with the silicon cell producers, arguing that manufacturers of such "non-toxic solar technologies" as they call them are put at a competitive disadvantage by the current regulatory framework.

"A level playing field is needed, where all are treated fairly by the same standards. A consequent application of the logic of the RoHS recast would accelerate and strengthen research and development in non-toxic PV technologies," said the NTSA chair.

First Solar uses cadmium telluride (CdTE) as the semiconductor material to ramp up the capacity of its solar cells and convert sunlight into electricity. The technology allows it to produce modules at a significantly lower cost than most of its competitors.

Products containing cadmium telluride and sulphide would not comply with RoHS rules, though.

However, studies assessing the life-cycle emissions of photovoltaic technologies have shown that thin-film cadmium telluride PV performs best environmentally due to energy-efficient production.

Solar World, a major crystalline producer, has announced it is against EPIA's efforts to exclude the solar industry from the RoHS directive.

NTSA says that Solar World is backing its position, but insists that it gets no funding from the company. Rather, it is fully funded by donations from its supporters, mainly scientists and private figures from the solar industry, according to its website.

"The NTSA does not represent the solar industry since nobody knows exactly which companies are behind this organisation. The one and only representation of the solar industry in Europe remains EPIA and we have a unambiguous position on RoHS," Hoffmann stressed.

European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) and PV Cycle, the European association for the voluntary take-back and recycling of photovoltaic modules, warned that extending the scope of the RoHS Directive would not do any favours for the promotion of renewable energies in the EU.

It would "ban certain innovative solar panels from the EU market" and result in "disproportionate compliance costs" due to the different transposition of the directive in member states, they said in a statement. "PV is a young growing industry which is striving to reach competitiveness; resources allocated for the compliance under RoHS will not be allocated elsewhere, to the detriment of technological and R&D investments," they added.

The European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) argued that including renewable energy technologies within the scope of RoHS would be counter-productive in achieving the EU's environmental, energy security and competitiveness objectives.

"The environmental impacts of using renewable energy sources are insignificant when compared to the environmental impacts of non-renewable energy sources," it said in a statement. The sector is a young industry striving for competitiveness, and resources allocated for compliance under RoHS will have to be diverted away from R&D investments, it added, emphasising that sustainability is a key research topic for the sector.

"Were the scope of RoHS to be extended, then a full prior and detailed impact assessment - as required by the Better Regulation principles – should be conducted," it stated.

The American Chamber of Commerce to the EU, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA), Digital Europe and the Japan Business Council in Europe raised concerns that the move to an open scope had not been subject to an impact assessment. They argued that there may not be any viable substitute available in the immediate future for products that would be brought under the scope of the directive.

"Some of these products have systemic importance (power supply and transport), others have important environmental benefits (equipment for renewable energy production) or critical safety implications in the event of failure (for example higher voltage equipment and equipment for specialist or high-end applications). Inclusion in RoHS would effectively mean that these types of equipment are prohibited on the EU market," they said in a statement.

The EU's 2003 directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) seeks to increase the re-use, recycling and recovery of such waste.

It is complemented by a directive on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances (RoHS), including heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, to be substituted by safer alternatives in the products.

In December 2008, the European Commission published a proposal to recast the directives with the aim of improving implementation and cutting red tape (EURACTIV 04/12/08). It proposed to harmonise the scope of the two directives by moving WEEE annexes defining categories of equipment covered across to the RoHS directive.

Many member states, however, opposed such harmonisation, arguing that making the product list binding would require cumbersome comitology procedures for updating it (EURACTIV 23/10/09). As a result, the Swedish EU Presidency in the latter half of 2009 proposed separate scopes for each directive, extending RoHS to all electrical and electronic devices unless explicitly excluded.

  • 3 June: Parliament's environment committee to vote on RoHS report.

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