It’s no secret. Solar energy is one of the fastest growing industry sectors in the U.S. today. In 2010, the U.S. solar market grew 67 percent from $3.6 billion in 2009 to $6 billion. The industry now employs more than 100,000 solar workers and this figure is increasing as analysts expect the market for installed U.S. solar to double in 2011 and for the U.S. to become the leading global market by 2015.
And Americans want more solar. A 2010 independent poll by Kelton Research found that 94 percent of Americans think it is important for the nation to develop and use more solar energy.
The positive growth is certainly welcome along with the industry’s reputation for delivering the cleanest, safest energy source in the world. But solar industry leaders are already planning ahead to ensure sustainable business practices far into the future. Solar energy companies are here to make a profit like any business enterprise. However, industry leaders are also motivated to protect the environment, create safe jobs that pay well and manufacture and install solar products that are reliable, safe and sustainable.
These motivations led the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and its member companies to establish SEIA’s Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) Committee more than 2 years ago. This industry committee works to assess EHS issues, develop best practices and pursue industry solutions to ensure sustainable business practices. Currently, the Committee’s issue priorities include: planning for decommissioned PV module collection and recycling; sustainable supply chain management; installer and worker safety; and fire safety. We are proactively working to find solutions to issues before they become a problem, rather than answer after the fact.
The volume of U.S. PV module waste was barely 0.05 percent of the nearly 2.2 million metric tons of obsolete computers, monitors, TVs, printers and copiers discarded by U.S. consumers in 2010. The Committee is promoting recycling by actively sharing information on end-of-life options and recycling best practices, even though volume is estimated to be less than 50,000 metric tons per year by 2025. (See chart below.)
*Source: SEIA, GTM Research, 2010, based on accelerated installed PV growth forecasts.
The Committee is also producing a voluntary industry Code of Conduct for sustainability issues, outlining labor practices, environmental practices, health and safety standards, as well as ethics and management systems similar to those developed by the electronics industry.
SEIA’s EHS Committee is not the only entity working to strengthen solar energy’s record of sustainability. In Europe, where photovoltaic (PV) installations have far outpaced the U.S., PV Cycle is putting together the framework for voluntary, industry-wide recycling of PV panels that will be decommissioned at the end of their 25- to 30-year life cycle. We expect to see a similar program here in the U.S. when the volume reaches critical mass for an industry-wide program. In the meantime, most large PV manufacturers have or are establishing voluntary take-back and recycling of their panels.
As the solar industry continues its fast-paced growth across all sectors and markets, we know that more Americans will care about our commitment to EHS issues.
We intend to remain the cleanest energy sector for decades to come, creating rewarding and safe jobs while leading a prosperous and sustainable future for America and the world.