Solar photovoltaics (PV) have long enjoyed a social license to operate due to their green attributes. Over time, the global deployment of PV systems was enabled by incentives based on the sustainability profile of the technology. Today, however, PV is more than able to stand on its own, effectively competing unsubsidized against other generation types, and the combination of its economic competitiveness and sustainable attributes has made it a key enabler for achieving a transition towards a decarbonized global economy by 2050 in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.
By successfully scaling PV manufacturing and reducing electricity generation costs to record low levels, solar PV has become mainstream and is no longer viewed as an “alternative” technology. As the cheapest form of electricity, solar PV is expected to be the fastest-growing renewable energy technology from now to 2050. With an ever-improving environmental footprint, photovoltaics are also contributing to a number of the UN Sustainable Development Goals within the ecological planetary boundaries.
With scale and ubiquitousness of the technology also comes great responsibility – for the entire value chain. The narrow one-dimensional focus on decreasing costs by centralizing the bulk of solar supply chains and manufacturing capacities in certain countries comes at a price and threatens to undermine the industry’s social license to operate. Cost reduction and scale should never come at the expense of human health and fundamental human rights.
From sourcing, manufacturing, operation and end-of life management, we have a responsibility as an industry to minimize our environmental and social impacts. This starts with taking a comprehensive approach to responsible sourcing and supply chain management that includes a robust policy, screening, mapping and auditing of suppliers, as well as transparent reporting on their performance. Responsible manufacturing is about ensuring solar modules and their components are manufactured in a safe and resource-efficient manner that does not rely on cheap coal-fired electricity. With a lower carbon footprint, solar modules can enable faster and greater decarbonisation, which is needed if we are serious about getting to Net Zero. Lastly, the industry must ensure that today’s clean energy solutions do not become a future waste burden, by investing in high-value recycling that maximizes material recovery and creates valuable secondary materials to reduce our reliance on more energy-intensive primary materials.
The photovoltaic value chain has reached an inflection point on its way to terawatt deployment – will it accept an authoritarian regime intent on monopolizing the solar market by impeding supply chain transparency, violating human rights and prosecuting advocates of a just photovoltaic industry? Will governments, utilities, renewable project developers and end-users around the globe, that increasingly rely on solar as a major electricity generation technology, jeopardize solar’s social license by turning a blind eye and refusing to take responsibility for the full supply chain?
The right choice should be obvious – responsible solar is a critical prerequisite of achieving a just transition and there must be zero tolerance for the violation of fundamental human rights. Investors and end-users are demanding responsible solar. Corporate renewable energy buyers are increasingly thinking “Beyond the Megawatt” and incorporating environmental and social criteria in their procurement process. Meanwhile, investors are screening out companies with human rights allegations against them from their investment funds.
With the growing push towards mandatory human rights, due diligence will make companies liable not only for their operations but for any harm caused in their supply chain. Whether it is for moral reasons, risk reduction or wanting to minimize supply disruptions and delays, we should all be choosing responsible solar.
Managing Director, First Solar GmbH