“All solar is good and not all solar is equal,” says Michael Parr. He is the executive director of the new Ultra-Low Carbon Solar Alliance. “Our goal is to educate the market (and policy makers) that through awareness about how you buy solar, you can avoid significant supply chain emissions in the solar industry, which amount to billions of tons of carbon in the coming years as solar booms.” View the video interview here

The irony of solar: how to make it more ‘sustainable’

At least half the solar panels in the world are now from coal-fired power. Michael believes if we don’t act broadly as industry growth continues “. . . we’re going to see dramatic growth in carbon emissions.” This is very ironic for an industry that is based on removing carbon from the economy. We know how to grow solar in a much cleaner way, Michael insists. There just hasn’t been a market signal that says, please do that. “It’s really a pretty straight-forward solution – simply, hey, Amazon, hey, Google, hey, Next Era, the next panel you buy, or the next PPA you sign, just specify the use of ultra low carbon solar.” And they are fully competitive on price and performance.

What is the Ultra-Low Carbon Solar Alliance?

The Alliance, a membership group, is committed to create knowledge that there are widely differing sustainability practices within the industry. They are also working with a major standards organization to create a third-party verified specification tool. “A very simple tool that people can just write into their specs to guarantee the modules that show up in their project, or the modules that feed their PTAs, are more sustainable, ultra low carbon solar.”

Coal-fired solar has roughly twice the embodied carbon as ultra low carbon solar, according to academic research gathered by Michael and the Alliance. At each step of the manufacturing value chain, there are elements of carbon intensity. Polysilicon is the bulk of it because they’re so energy intensive to make, but decarbonization can happen at every step. Some years ago, the French put out bids that encouraged lower embodied carbon. They required entities at each step of the supply chain to do a lifecycle assessment of the embodied carbon in their component of a module.

“The French program is pretty good. South Korea is implementing a pretty similar program. But the approach is not entirely transparent and it’s hard for other people to use it,” explains Michael. So they decided to take the model, convert it to a global standard with a third-party verified eco label behind it, and make it easy for everybody to buy better solar.  

Cleaner solar energy and more

“We are seeing very clear market signals,” Michael told Solar Podcast. “This is not some emerging whizzbang technology. These are modules that are in the market today. People would have a natural preference to get to better solar if they could.” He adds, however, that it isn’t just about making large changes in carbon emissions – though that’s what the Alliance is concentrating on in the near-term. “It’s both the grid you draw from and how well you run your facility,” says Michael, including energy efficiency, internal recycling and reuse.

From the Ultra Low Carbon Solar Alliance to developers: Even if you’re not quite ready to jump into the deep end on ultra low carbon solar, at least start asking the question. Talk to your module suppliers about their awareness of embodied carbon, and where they’re going in their own manufacturing footprint. We need to send a global signal that coal-fired solar is not going to be the way forward.