EU lawmakers have decided to exempt the renewable energy sector from a ban on hazardous household electronic goods, with the option to review in 2014. Now the industry must live up to its green credentials.
Most European-built panels are unaffected by the ban
The renewable energy industry has won exemption from a piece of European Union legislation aimed at banning the use of hazardous chemical substances in household electronic goods.
The vote comes as a relief to solar panel companies such as First Solar Inc, which had strongly resisted the attempt by some members of the European Parliament to ban the substance cadmium, used as a compound in the panels made by the US company.
The compromise comes after weeks of intense lobbying amid fears the row would threaten the competitiveness of the sector. Industry representatives had set out to prove there is not a risk for consumers, as they would not typically come into contact with solar panels.
"I think this is a sign that we are not household electronic equipment," said First Solar's Christopher Burghardt. "All photovoltaic installations are professionally installed on roofs, and they are de-installed after used, and they get collected and recycled professionally."
The Restriction of the use of Certain Hazardous Substances (RhoS) directive has been in force since July 2006. It currently does not affect 80 percent of the European market in solar companies, which mainly use an alternative technology to the cadmium telluride panels manufactured by First Solar.
Government-supported benefits have made solar panels popular in parts of Europe
Green industries must show their true colors
The vote by the European Parliament's Environment Committee was the right compromise, according to German EU lawmaker Karl-Heinz Florenz, who said the renewable energy sector must now live up to its responsibilities.
"We will give them a type of credit, that they can show us in the next three years, what they are doing, and if this work is not properly [done], then it will come back immediately in the directive," he said.
Christopher Burghardt maintained a potential ban threatened to do more damage to European competitiveness than to the environment. He insisted his company's technology has always been safe.
"The fact that some countries in our industry are trying to use this debate to advance competitive arguments in a way that would discriminate against some technologies that actually have a very beneficial environmental profile is unfortunate, but I think that's the nature of any political debate," he said.
Some materials from solar panels are easily recyclable
First Solar already has a collection and recycling program, so consumers or installers can alert the company when a panel comes to the end of its working life.
Separately, the solar panel industry is working on a voluntary take-back scheme called PV Cycle, which sets ambitious targets for collection, through a waste stream involving tailor-made recycling facilities for a range of different technologies.
The hope is that the scheme will ensure solar companies take back and recycle up to 80 percent of their products.
Karl-Heinz Florenz said the solar panel companies have until 2014 to prove they are taking the scheme seriously and that the new legislation would be a work in progress.
"If we find out later there are some products we didn't know about now, but prove to be risky, then we can certainly put them into the RhoS directive," he said. "If we don't know these products, we can't ban them, and I think that was a good decision, but we have to be careful in the future certainly."
This week's vote is just the first stage of a wider effort to upgrade the EU's directive on hazardous substances.
And the heated debate appears to have reminded the renewable energy sector that it too needs to keep proving its green credentials.
Author: Nina-Maria Potts
Editor: Rob Turner