Fighting for clean solar energy in Europe

Publish date: May 4, 2010

Written by: Veronica Webster

BRUSSELS – Bellona, together with other NGOs, researchers and members of industry, will be speaking at a round table in the European Parliament next Wednesday, titled “Should the solar sector be included in the scope of the RoHS recast Directive?” Bellona and others are working to reduce the risk of the EU allowing solar panels to contain hazardous waste. The drive behind these efforts is that key pieces of EU legislation – the so-called RoHs and WEEE Directives – are currently under revision.

The EU Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations 2008 (RoHS) bans the placing on the EU market of new electrical and electronic equipment containing more than agreed levels of lead, cadmium, mercury and other toxics. The EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) imposes the responsibility for the disposal of electrical and electronic equipment on the manufacturers of such equipment. Both Directives are currently under revision at the European Parliament.  

Today, approximately percent of the market of thin-film, photovoltaic (PV) panels used for solar power generation contain cadmium telluride, cadmium being a highly toxic compound. Japan and the EU have already prohibited the sale of most products containing cadmium for health and safety reasons.

The current debate in Brussels is whether or not to define PV panels as electrical or electronic equipment, and thus whether or not force PV panel producers to comply with the rules of the directives.

Safety and sustainability – a high price to pay

In order to reach a carbon neutral economy in the EU, renewable energies including solar must be pushed forward through EU and member state legislation.

Exempting PV panel producers or other renewable energy producers from RoHS could unnecessarily create a new problem, namely spreading highly toxic chemicals. In addition, cadmium and tellurium are limited natural resources, which at some point will run out. This creates an additional long-term problem.

Hazardous waste management – expensive and unpredictable  

Cadmium waste management also poses a problem, given that no voluntary agreement exists amongst industry within the EU for a common recycling scheme.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the actual end-of-life – at which point cadmium would no longer pose an environmental of health hazard – is unknown. The expected life is of 25 years, but recent studies have shown this figure to be an underestimation.

What to do about RoHS

Bellona, together with other NGOs and a big part of the industry wants a so-called “open scope”. Open scope implies that for a product not to be under the regulations, it will need a specific exemption, thus becoming a more comprehensive piece of legislation.

“Since PV panels can also be produced without containing the toxics regulated by RoHS, such as silicon, European politicians should create incentives for the solar industry to develop and deploy the cleaner technologies. Tone Knudsen from Bellona says.

“In fact, industrial players representing the main part of the solar panel market today say that they can and want to be under the hazardous waste regulations, RoHS and WEEE. So how can it make sense to open the market up for PV panels containing toxics?” She asks.

Please download Bellona’s position paper to the right.

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