Photo: Daniel Phillips, Flickr CC BY 2.0

Last year, solar power became the fastest growing source of new energy, surpassing all other forms of power generation. New solar capacity even overtook net growth in coal for the first time. Despite the huge benefits of solar energy and its fundamental role in future energy development, there is also a need to understand how the growing demand for photovoltaic (PV) cells and energy storage technology will impact sustainability.

Photo: Daniel Phillips, Flickr CC BY 2.0

A report published by Levin Sources on Solar Energy (December 2017) investigates the supply chain risks associated with PV cells. The report looks into sustainability issues in the sourcing, processing and disposing of minerals used in PV cells and the importance of supply chain governance. Some of the main supply chain risks associated with minerals are outlined below:

Health & Safety:

  • Mining, processing, dismantling and recycling are all forms of labour that have significant health and safety risks for workers, particularly if insufficient protective equipment and procedures are in place.

Land Rights:

  • Questions of ownership of land that contains valuable mineral deposits can lead to conflict over territory, which can be further complicated when the land is traditionally owned by indigenous people or considered sacred.

Water Rights:

  • The allocation of local water supply to mining projects can mean that it is diverted away from local residents.

Biodiversity:

  • Mining practices can interfere with the resilience of ecosystems and threaten biodiversity through deforestation, pollution or diversion of water courses.

Labour Rights:

  • The contractual agreements (or lack of contractual agreements) for workers in mining, smelting, refining and recycling can fail to provide sufficient job security, meet minimum or living wage standards or give access to a grievance mechanism.

Waste Management:

  • Once the recoverable material has been extracted, its waste product (mine tailings and overburden) must be disposed of safely. The disposal of waste products from the mining process can contaminate areas surrounding the site, having impact on local communities and natural habitats. Waste can contain heavy metals that if left in contact with water sources and the soil can be released into the environment and have a detrimental impact on human and animal health.

Pollution:

  • The mining, processing and recycling of metals can use and emit toxic chemical substances that may be harmful to the environment and to human health if these chemicals are released into ecosystems or humans come into contact with high doses, with inadequate protection. Pollutants emitted from mining, processing and refining operations can not only pose a risk to workers that are directly exposed to toxic chemicals, but also to local and regional communities if pollutants are emitted into the air, soil and waters that are in use by them.

Governing Supply Chain Risks:

While these minerals are vital in the transition towards renewable energy, there are also risks involved the sourcing, processing and disposal of minerals used in PV cells. This is a particular concern when sourcing from areas which lack effective national regulation, increasing the likelihood of certain types of supply chain risk.

In addition, given the pressure that growing solar energy demand will put on mineral supply chains, it is important to increase supply chain transparency so that risks can be better identified and managed. In doing so, assessing the social and environmental impacts related to PV cells should become an integral part of supply chain due diligence processes for PV cell manufacturers. Yet, there is also a need for innovation and development in the solar energy field to reduce the supply chain risks associated with PV cells.

Read the full report by Levin Sources: “Solar Photovoltaic and Energy Storage in the Electric Grid