Applying life cycle analysis to PV manufacturing

Life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology — assessing a product’s impact from “cradle to grave” — can help companies forecast where hidden risks may lie and take steps to address these risks before they become impacts, writes W. Kenneth Lynch from EORM.

by W. Kenneth Lynch, principal consultant, Environmental and Occupational Risk Management

Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is increasingly seen as an economically viable alternative to address our rapidly expanding global energy needs. Despite conservation efforts; as the global economic crisis subsides, the energy consumption of the United States, Western Europe, China, and India will continue to expand. By meeting the increased demand with electrical power generated by solar technologies, we can contribute to environmental protection and create new jobs in the clean tech sector.

PV solar technology’s ability to capture energy from the sun is a clean alternative to power produced form coal fired energy plants. But to fully realize this “clean energy” goal, PV manufacturers must address the little discussed reality that many solar PV panels are made with and contain toxic materials (see “PV’s duty to lead EHS, sustainability,” PV World, August 19, 2009).

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition recently published a white paper entitled “Toward a Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry” that discussed solar energy’s obligation to address environmental impacts associated with PV panels. Although the paper clearly acknowledged the promise of solar energy, it was also made clear that unless a concerted effort is made to responsibly manage the toxic materials associated with PV panels through their lifecycle, this “clean energy” alternative could have a greater negative environmental impact than benefit.

One approach to addressing this challenge is life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology, which can be defined as the assessment of the impact of a product on the environment from “cradle to grave,” or the more recently coined “cradle to cradle.” This means analyzing impacts starting with the acquisition of raw materials for product manufacture, through manufacturing, packaging and distribution, installation, use by the consumer, and disposal or re-use at the end of the product’s useful life.

The value of the LCA is the ability to assess impacts that may otherwise be overlooked. It gives companies the ability to forecast where hidden risks may lie and take steps to address these risks before they become impacts.

One US-based PV manufacturer recognized early in its evolution the valuable information that can result from LCA. Despite being just beyond the “proof of concept” stage in technology development, this company has a strong commitment to identify potential environmental impacts and understands the business value of addressing “end of life” product issues. By establishing a partnership with a large global services company, the manufacturer ensured a robust and reliable product take-back mechanism for their clients many years down the road. At a minimum, applying life-cycle thinking will enable PV companies to identify potential environment, health and safety impacts and costs saving alternatives throughout their value chain, from supply chain efficiencies to post-sales recycle/reuse options.

As more PV manufacturers undertake a product LCA, additional hidden benefits may be discovered. For example, precious metals recovery, process waste reduction, and eliminating the use of restricted chemicals are likely benefits of the LCA approach. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Chemistry Web site provides information regarding elimination of toxic hazards and the 12 principles of green chemistry approach to LCA that many see as a suitable alternative for PV panel makers to adopt.

The PV solar industry is at a critical juncture. Rapid growth and support from the government have launched the industry into a strong market position. This early and promising stage of development is the optimal time to apply life cycle assessment for PV panel production. LCA is a responsible approach that manufacturers can utilize to obtain information regarding potential EHS impacts and benefits in the early phases of deployment. Careful planning based on life-cycle thinking will help avoid costly mistakes in the future and allow greater benefit from this “clean technology.”

W. Kenneth Lynch is a principal consultant at Environmental and Occupational Risk Management (EORM). E-mail:

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