WHEB Commentary

Solar energy commitment underlines value of investor engagement


Over three years ago, I co-launched a programme to encourage the solar (PV) photovoltaic industry to address the social and environmental impacts of the manufacture and deployment of the technology. In late March 2012 this initiative took a critical step forward when the US industry formally launched their commitment to sustainability.

As an investor with a long-term interest in low carbon solar power technologies, it has been a bit depressing over the last few years to see the carnage in the sector caused by massive over-capacity in solar module production. Of course, the flip side of this has been the extraordinary declines in the cost of the modules that has brought the technology to the brink of grid parity in many markets around the world.

This is, I believe, something to be genuinely excited about. Solar pv technology has a huge amount to offer the world, both because of its very low environmental impact, but also because of its power to fundamentally democratise energy production (see separate blog Democratising Power). But, there is now another reason to feel optimistic about the future of the industry with the commitment of leading industry players to ensure that the sometimes significant negative impacts of solar module manufacturing are fully addressed.

This was the objective of an initiative that we co-created with the US environmental group SVTC back in 2009. That initiative, the Solar Scorecard , is now in its third year and enjoys the support of investors representing over US$1.5 trillion. The first phase of this project though met with some resistance from the industry which argued that producing solar technology was in itself adequate to deliver the industry’s own sustainability. Pollution scandals reported in relation to suppliers to Suntech Power in 2008 and then most recently at Jinko Solar in 2011 underscored the wider agenda that needed to be addressed.

The new code launched by the US Solar Energy Industries Association builds on the experience of the electronics industry and represents a step change from the sector in managing not just the environmental issues associated with solar manufacturing,
but also wider issues such as worker health and safety, labour rights and product take-back and recycling. The industry must now work to ensure this code is rigorously applied and that results are communicated to investors and other stakeholders.

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