EU solar manufacturers’ ESG credentials could bolster revival

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From pv magazine Global

With the European Commission’s keenly anticipated Net-Zero Industry Act set to be published on March. 14, the ways in which aspirant and exiting European manufacturers can be supported was a central theme of presentations and panel discussions at the 2023’s SolarPower Summit in Brussels. While the Net-Zero act looks likely to introduce domestic content provisions for the public procurement of solar, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria could also be applied in policy measurers to support European solar producers.

That fostering European solar manufacturing is an urgent necessity in terms of securing long-term energy security was oft-repeated theme during discussions at the summit.

International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Fatih Birol was unequivocal in his advocacy for a substantial expansion in European solar making. He made the call at the SolarPower Summit’s plenary session.

“It is time for Europe to look at the manufacturing of solar,” said Birol, before adding that despite the region’s urgent need to install PV it will remain an importer of solar technology, but that “Europe can have a share.”

“20 years ago, Europe started solar manufacturing,” noted Fatih, likening the solar production race as being a marathon, in which Europe excelled over the race’s first quarter. “But no one wins the gold medal after the first 10km. It is important for Europe to come with incentives, regulatory and financial instruments [to support solar manufacturing].”

It is far from the first time that the case for European PV manufacturing, on the grounds of energy security, has been made. The European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson famously said that the European Commission would do “whatever it takes” to support manufacturing efforts at the SolarPower Summit in 2022.

Simson addressed summit attendees again this year, where she said switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy “should not mean replacing one dependence with another.” As such, the commissioner added: “Europe needs to up its game and diversify its supply. We have achieved a lot, but the work is not done yet. The Commission will be by your side every step of the way.”

European policymakers had strengthened the EU Solar Industry Alliance, Simson noted, with an aim to achieve 30 GW of PV module production capacity by 2025 – including upstream components such as ingots, wafers, and cells. She added that solar manufacturing will be supported under the EU Green Deal Industrial Plan.

The European Commission opened the way for additional support during the SolarPower Summit with European Union rules regarding the state aid for industry being relaxed for solar and other clean technology producers.

The measures are a part of the European Commission’s Temporary Crisis and Transition Framework and it appears to be a positive development that will allow EU member governments to provide financial support to prospective and existing manufacturers.

Difficult to access

However, there was some criticism of existing EU support measures from solar manufacturers during the summit.

Both Meyer Burger and Enel Green Power are pursuing gigawatt-scale integrated cell and module manufacturing facilities in Germany and Italy respectively. However, these projects pale in comparison to massive new factories being developed in India, and the flurry of activity across the Atlantic in the United States. Both countries offer generous market protections and subsidy programs for manufacturers, including India’s production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme and the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

Meyer Burger CEO Gunter Erfurt and Eliano Russo, the head of Enel’s 3Sun Gigafactory, acknowledged that their manufacturing projects were the beneficiaries of public funds.

Of the €600 million ($971 million) that has been invested in its 3Sun facility, Russo said that roughly one-third had come from public funds – from the EU Innovation Fund and Italian government grants. However, he added that it took a great deal of time and resources to access such funding.

“We are still in discussion to get financial close,” said Russo. “A company like Enel can surmount these challenges [but] all of these inefficiencies require a lot of attention.”

Meyer Burger’s Erfurt said that of the €340 million ($550 million) that the Swiss-based company had invested in its manufacturing operations, €35 million came in the form of regional-government grants – from the German states of Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. “But compared to China and the IRA it is a drop in the ocean,” he said.

Erfurt added that €15 million of the subsidies his company had received were by virtue of Meyer Burger having proven that its solar cell production is “the most environmentally friendly” technology. The company is producing silicon heterojunction (HJT) PV cells, which are thinner than standard crystalline silicon (c-Si) cells and use a lead-free cell metalisation and interconnection technology – the latter branded Smartwire by Meyer Burger in the company’s previous life as a solar production equipment supplier.

“We’ve been able to raise €850 million from the private sector,” in the form of capital investment and certified green convertible bonds. By contrast, Erfurt argued, “my observation is that the downstream industry isn’t ESG yet” and that they were deploying PV modules that were tainted with forced labor, that there was lead in the modules, and that some modules had a “very high carbon footprint.”

As simple as ESG

It is conceivable that ESG metrics and criteria could be used by policymakers to offer protection to European solar producers.

Christian Westermeier, from German polysilicon producer Wacker Chemie, said that while European “ecolabels” could be a helpful tool in distinguishing European solar products, he called for a standardisation of labelling initiatives.

“Europe has set the benchmark for ESG and for solar it’s an obligation to follow ESG rules”, said Westermeier. “Such a label could give orientation for consumers and investors and create a level playing field for the goods that we are producing in Europe.”

This is a message to Brussels that is shared by German inverter producer SMA. The company is in the process of doubling its production capacity and doesn’t see a reason to stop there. “All we are asking for is a level playing field,” says Katharina Eickelberg, who heads communications and sustainability at SMA. “We are ready to start.”

SolarPower Europe reports that the “sold out” SolarPower Summit attracted over 350 attendees.

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