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Thin-Film Solar PV Suppliers Unite Under “PVThin” Banner

A half-dozen makers of thin-film solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies are joining forces to promote the technology’s “social, economic and environmental benefits.”

PVThin, formed under Belgian laws (but claiming it will “register in all relevant government lists”), aims to “champion the role of thin-film PV and communicate the unique technological, environmental and socio-economic aspects of this cost effective and environmentally friendly solar technology,” according to Andreas Wade, president of PVThin, in a statement. The group cites figures that thin-film technologies make up about 18 percent of global PV sales, up from “almost nothing a decade ago.” Founding members include Abound Solar, Arendi, Calyxo, First Solar, GE Energy and 5N Plus.

The group says its goals are not in conflict with, but instead complement, those of other solar industry advocacy groups including the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) in the US, and Germany’s BSW. “[We do] not seek to create a rival organization,” Wade emphasized.

We’ll be talking with PVThin later this week for more specifics about its direction, but available info suggests a few early takeaways:

It’s got cachet: First Solar as a charter member, inarguably a benchmark solar manufacturer of any size or technology, gives PVThin instant credibility; Wade is director of sustainable development at First Solar. Moreover, he’s also chair of the EPIA’s working group on sustainable development, which should be a collaborative bonus.It’s an exclusive club: The group emphasizes its focus is on thin-film PV using “chalcogenide” compounds — more specifically, “sulfides, selenides, and tellurides, rather than oxides,” the group says. That definition intentionally excludes, say, thin-film amorphous silicon (a-Si), preferring instead to emphasize chalcogenide compounds’ “unique electrical and physical properties that have accelerated the development of mass-produced, affordable, high-yield solar modules with a good environmental profile from a life-cycle perspective,” the group says. “It is to promote these unique properties, and how they positively impact energy security and climate-change mitigation, that PVThin was founded.”

PVThin’s initial membership is slanted heavily on the cadmium telluride (CdTe) side of thin-film solar PV: First Solar, Abound Solar, GE, Arendi, and Calyxo. 5N Plus supplies materials for CdTe, but also CdS, a starter material for making copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS), the other prevalent thin-film solar PV technology. But PVThin isn’t CdTe-exclusive; the group openly explains the benefits of both CdTe and CIGS, and says “any company from the chalcogenide thin-film PV value chain may become a member.”

It’s the softer side of solar PV: Among PVThin’s missions is to promote the idea of “sustainability” with thin-film solar PV technology, invoking the “Life Cycle Analysis”(LCA) approach of adherence to environmentally responsible technology from raw materials sourcing to end-of-life collection and recycling. (This position, by definition, comes with a desire to exclude renewable energy technologies in general, and PV modules in particular, from the scope of the European Union’s Directive on the Restriction of Hazardous Substances [RoHS].) “Because of the small quantities and robustness of the unique semiconductor material used in each solar panel, thin-film PV requires much less energy to process and consequently offers the smallest carbon footprints and fastest energy payback times of current PV technologies, on a life cycle basis” — almost twice as fast as average silicon solar panels.

The group also advocates for inclusion of PV into the EU’s Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) “state-of-the-art PV recycling and recovery programs and technologies in cooperation with other organizations.” Thin-film technology, it points out, “lends itself to relatively simple mechanical and chemical recycling” to recover raw materials. “Commercial-scale recycling operations are already capable of recovering up to 95% of the semiconductor material and up to 90% of the glass for use in new solar panels and other glass products.”

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