Sustainable Excellence is a Global Challenge
Sustainable Excellence is a Global Challenge
By Dan Martin, Executive Vice President, SEMI PV Group
The PV industry faces an enormous challenge to adopt, excel and demonstrate sustainable, environmental Best Practices in the manufacture, deployment and life cycle management of solar products. The demand is great because of the advanced materials and processes used in manufacturing, the expectation of consumers and other end users for “green,” low-carbon footprint products, and the enormous scrutiny that solar energy will continuously receive from environmental activists, regulatory authorities, and government policy makers around the world.
Adding complexity and cost to the goal of achieving sustainable, environmental excellence is the global scope of the PV industry. Industry standards and Best Practices need to be in place wherever a cell and panel are made, and wherever they are installed; life cycle management and recycling programs should be in place and complementary around the world; and scientific expertise and supply chain ingenuity need to be leveraged to assure industry-wide consistency and responsibly managed regulatory threats.
Unfortunately, in our rapidly growing industry the development of uniform and high quality Best Practices for Sustainable Excellence are hindered by uneven market growth, technology and business model diversity in the supply chain. Furthermore, the rapid emergence of regional regulatory and legislative actions can often be redundant, contradictory, misguided, and potentially costly.
To achieve Sustainable Excellence in any one region requires, in large part, Sustainable Excellence on a global scale. Just as the actions of one supplier can have an impact on the reputation and influence of an entire industry, the actions and requirements of one country can have appreciable impact on cost, compliance and conformance to industry-wide goals. This is becoming especially important as both supply and demand of PV products are growing in emerging economies where environmental regulation and sustainable development practices have been less prominent.
How the PV industry addresses the challenge of achieving sustainable, environmental excellence will be in large part a factor of how the solutions we collectively develop have global reach and effectiveness. This article will examine the opportunities and challenges for achieving sustainable excellence in life cycle management, environmental, health and safety (EHS) practices, and green supply chain enablement.
Life Cycle Management
Like all electronic products, PV cells and panels have potential serious environmental impacts at all stages of the product life cycle--from raw material sourcing through end-of-life collection and recycling. These concerns have been especially prevalent in Europe where disposal of electronic and electrical products has long been a subject of regulation. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) became European Law in February 2003, setting collection, recycling and recovery targets for all types of electrical goods. The directive imposes the responsibility for the disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment on manufacturers in a way that does not impose costs on the end user. The Directive has been an effective model for recovery and recycling of products like televisions and cell phones, but it’s applicability to large-scale and roof-top solar systems with a life span of 25 years and more has not been fully understood.
With the WEEE Directive in the background, in May 2007, Germany's solar energy association, BSW, and the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), commissioned a study on the development of a take-back and recovery system for photovoltaic products. Completed in March 2008, this study on the relevant technical, ecological, economic, legal and political parameters became the basis for PV Cycle, a new European association founded in Brussels in July 2007. PC Cycle has been chartered with the specific purpose of implementing the industry’s commitment to set up a voluntary take-back and recycling program for end-of-life waste PV modules throughout the European Union.
In the US, the term, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), is commonly used to describe voluntary and mandatory mechanisms for sourcing, recycling, and recovery programs to reduce the environmental impact of consumer products over their life cycle. One well-known form of EPR is the producer take back, which requires companies to take back their products when users are done with them and ensure that they are recycled safely and responsibly. Dozens of environmental groups and other organizations have advocated EPR campaigns and legislation covering many forms of solid waste, with special emphasis on electronic goods. In the U.S., 15 states have passed legislation mandating some type of EPR for consumer products that could conceivably be extended to solar systems. In Japan, laws have been established for televisions and other electronic products. Many observers believe it will only be matter of time EPR regulations will extend to solar products.
Without a global solution, US-based First Solar has introduced a self-funded global recycling system for collection and recycling of its solar modules. Each solar module made by First Solar is labeled with a web site and telephone contact information in six languages along with the instructions for the end user to return the product free of charge at the end of life or use. The funds set aside are placed in a restricted account controlled by an insurance company, separate from First Solar's assets.
As much as First Solar should be lauded for their commitment, the success of the PV industry in sustainability excellence won’t be judged on the basis of the best practitioners, but the worst. The industry needs to find a way to meet the goals of PV Cycle on a global basis, not just in Europe, and certainly not on a country-by-country or state-by-state basis.
Environmental, Health and Safety Practices
A great achievement of the high tech environmental, health and safety (EHS) profession is the willingness of EHS personnel from different companies to share their environmental, health and safety practices and to collaborate on solving common EHS challenges. Its success in semiconductors, mobile phones, computers, and other products has been based on the premise that EHS Best Practices cannot, and should not, be a source for competitive advantage by individual companies. Rather, best known EHS practices and technology requires industry-wide collaboration on training, best practices, emergency response, technical expertise, collective voice, and regulatory interface. We owe it to each other (and our industry) to actively share programs, procedures and best practices in a non-competitive environment.
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Many of these collaborative activities can take the form of EHS standards and guidelines for safely designing, deploying and operating PV manufacturing equipment. The process benefits and contributions of a collaborative industry-EHS community can be demonstrated by the semiconductor industry that has been solving industry-wide EHS challenges since the mid-1980’s. At that time, a SEMI task force of device manufacturers and equipment suppliers was organized to develop SEMI S2, a safety guideline that provides a set of performance-based EHS considerations for semiconductor manufacturing equipment. With the introduction of SEMI S2, equipment suppliers could anticipate and proactively design important safety features into equipment, rather than rely on inspection and costly retrofits to ensure equipment safety. The industry’s total number of equipment safety incidents has steadily decreased since the advent of S2, even though the number of fabs and the complexity of manufacturing operations have increased.
The contribution of consensus-based EHS standards and guidelines for the semiconductor industry has involved more than a safer work environment, accelerated production schedules, and a sterling industry reputation, it has reduced costs to the industry, probably on the order of billions of dollars. Current SEMI standards address such critical areas as ergonomic engineering, ventilation, risk evaluation and assessment, fire safety, electrical design, energy efficiency, and materials utilization. Many of these standards and guidelines are immediately applicable to the PV industry with minimal modifications (SEMI PV Group members are currently assessing the scope and priority for industry adoption).
Another critical standards effort for the PV industry to address relates to fab energy conservation. The SEMI S23 standard, which is a tool for analyzing energy, utilities, and materials on semiconductor manufacturing equipment, describes methods for measuring and reporting energy use and provide insight on energy, utilities, and materials conservation. A version of SEMI S23 for the PV industry could be a critical tool for an industry-wide effort to lower the carbon footprint of the industry, further establishing the industry’s fundamental benefit to policy makers across the globe. Consensus-based standards will continue to make good business sense—for the electronics industry’s workers, manufacturers, shareholders, and the environment.
Collaborative Expertise for Responsible Manufacturing
Another essential role for collaborative EHS activities is in managing greenhouse gas emissions and effectively contributing to a responsible regulatory environment. While solar power directly reduces greenhouse gas emissions by displacing fossil fuels, the manufacture of both thin film and crystalline-based systems require the use of greenhouse gases, including fluorinated greenhouse gases (F-GHS) which can have thousands of times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide.
In the US, the EPA is exploring rules, regulations and processes to reduce the emissions of F-GHG used in the manufacturing of PV products, including hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), perfluorocarbons (PFC), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) and hydrofluorinated ethers (HFE). The EPA sees this as a multiple industry issue (semiconductors, PV, MEMS, display, etc.), and also recognizes the need for global solutions and harmonization of guidelines with other regulatory authorities across the globe. Effectively engaging with regulatory authorities on scientific and technical topics requires the marshalling of valuable industry expertise on both a regional and international scope, virtually impossible without strong industry collaboration across borders.
A Global Green Supply Chain
A Green Sustainable Supply Chain can be defined as “the process of using environmentally friendly inputs and transforming these inputs through change agents—whose byproducts can improve or be recycled within the existing environment. This process develops outputs that can be reclaimed and re-used at the end of their life-cycle, thus creating a sustainable supply chain.” Sustainable supply chains are practical necessities in this era where companies are being held accountable for environmental problems created by suppliers. Companies of all sizes are enhancing their supplier relationships by encouraging and mandating business practices that have significant impact on environmental practices, such as:
- Reducing the obsolescence and waste of maintenance, repair and operating (MRO) materials through enhanced sourcing and inventory management practices
- Substantially decreasing the costs associated with scrap and material losses
- Decreasing the use and waste of solvents, paints, and other chemicals through chemical service partnerships
- Recovering valuable materials and assets through efficient product take back programs.
- Lowering the training, material handling, and other extra expenses associated with hazardous materials
- Increasing revenues by converting wastes to by-products
- Reducing the use of hazardous materials through more timely and accurate materials tracking and reporting systems
There is growing evidence that an increasing number of companies are moving from green rhetoric to sustainable action. In a recent report, the Aberdeen Group benchmarked the green supply chain initiatives of over 350 firms, worldwide. The study found that 83% of respondents have completed or are planning the green-focused redesign of all or key areas of their supply chains. Taiwan-based AUO in the flat panel display industry operates a world-class green supply chain program that requires extensive reporting and operations conformance of suppliers to participate. Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Dell, Solectron and Flextronics have launched an Electronics Industry Code of Conduct, which establishes minimum industry standards for social responsibility and environmental impact.
For the PV industry, the choice becomes whether cell and module makers and suppliers proceed with green supply chain efforts on an individual company basis, or whether to proceed uniformly in a consistent, high quality and lower cost approach. The most practical base approach to advancing a green supply chain in the industry is compliance with the International Standards Organization (ISO) environmental management standards. The ISO 14000 is a standard for environmental management systems that is applicable to any business, regardless of size, location or income. The goal of ISO 14000 is to implement an effective environmental management system that can reduce the environmental footprint of a business and minimize negative environmental impacts and optimize resource utilization. Organizations can be awarded an ISO 14000 certificate after a successful audit by an authorized accreditation body.
The ISO 14000 standards provide an effective approach to sustainability auditing and reporting that can be used to evaluate the sustainability performance of suppliers, throughout the world. ISO 14000 can also be used in conjunction with other, more specialized sustainability requirements such as Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directives or RoHS, SEMI Standards, and Responsible Care programs by the International Council of Chemical Associations.
Source: In the Aberdeen Group study, Building a Green Supply Chain: Social Responsibility for Fun and Profit, over 350 firms worldwide were benchmarked on their green supply chain initiatives. The study found that 83% of respondents have completed or are planning the green-focused redesign of all or key areas of their supply chains.
Global Solutions for a Global Industry
For the PV industry, the challenge is to reconcile and harmonize EHS and sustainable supply standards, guidelines and practices to allow the industry to reach high levels of performance without excessive costs or redundant or conflicting requirements. This is a major challenge for a global industry with hundreds of key participants based in over two dozen countries. Our success in achieving Sustainable Excellence will be measured not by what the market leaders can accomplish, but by what every player in the global supply chain aspires to—from utilities and small installers though cell and module manufacturers, to equipment, chemical, gas and polysilicon suppliers. Lifecycle management, EHS Best Practices, and a deep and green global supply chain need to be requirements for every manufacturer in the world, regardless of local regulations, local practices and competitive pricing pressure. Sustainable Excellence can’t be a source of competitive advantage for any one company or region; it must be a source of value for all companies and the entire global industry.