The sustainability of solar panels
Lorraine Khng, the Head of Marketing for Risen Energy Australia, discusses some of the factors contributing to a solar panel’s sustainability credentials.
While the benefit of solar power as a clean and critical part of our future energy mix is a no brainer, there is no shortage of debate on how green or ethical solar is in terms of its supply chain and asset lifecycle.
Most leading manufacturers today are just as focused on improving ESG factors as they are on developing new technology and enhancing performance. Indeed, public companies are held accountable by stakeholders for their impacts on ESG, being required or expected to produce annual sustainability reports.
As a manufacturer of modules and developer of large-scale solar assets, our sustainability impact can be broken down into four broad areas which each have numerous considerations. Our understanding of our materiality in each area continues to develop.
This stage comprises all facets of the supply chain that contribute to the manufacture of solar panels and their ancillary components.
Each supply chain is carefully analysed, selected and developed based on ESG factors, from the ethics of raw material acquisition and processing to the merits of the manufacturing techniques. We evaluate emissions, chemical pollutants, water use, and recycling/waste management.
Improving manufacturing processes and supply chains to reduce the embodied energy of panels such as using alternate materials and methods is one area we are constantly researching.
Another important focus is the exploitation of people along our supply chains and we are frequently re-identifying and understanding the risks of modern slavery across our global operations.
Construction or Installation Stage
The development of a solar farm has several aspects to evaluate including transportation, land preparation, the construction of foundations, panel install, fencing, cabling and so on.
We consider the credentials of our development partners in this process and ensure their values are aligned with ours.
For rooftop solar, we look at the transportation methods and the qualifications of our installation partners.
The longer a solar panel is in use, the lower its emissions across its useful life. Increasing our product warranty to 25 years demonstrated our confidence in the quality of our panels and their durability.
Across its useful life, we also look at the impacts of panel maintenance: cleaning, repairs and replacements. Solar panels are very robust and defects are rare. If they do occur, repair is usually possible. If not, they can be replaced individually as needed. Good quality panels will minimise the need for the latter two.
This stage considers decommissioning, recycling/reuse, disposal and transportation.
Our solar farms have detailed decommissioning and land rehabilitation plans to ensure the safe management of products at end-of-life and the re-establishment of the land to a productive state.
The industry is striving for zero waste and with the numerous rare and precious metals in solar panels there is huge potential in solar panel recycling but as panels have a 25 year life this market is still developing.
To support the development of this subsector, we’re partnering with a local company to progress the sustainable handling and processing of recyclable and waste materials from panels that have reached end-of-life. Leaching of toxic chemicals from quality panels is very rare.
Sustainability is a constantly evolving area and we are always learning. It requires a commitment to the continuous evaluation of materiality and a determination to keep improving.