Solar photovoltaic (PV) power is the flag-bearer of renewable energy and key for our transition to a low-carbon economy. The World Bank estimates that more than half of new renewable energy capacity over the next 5 years will come from solar PV.
Due to the rapid fall in technology costs and increased investor interest, the demand for minerals required to build solar panels is also expected to rise rapidly.
The World Bank estimates a 300% rise in demand for key minerals used in PV panels under a 2 degree climate scenario, including aluminium, copper, indium, iron, lead, molybdenum, nickel, silver, and zinc.
Minerals required for solar energy technology
Our research focused on companies mining copper, nickel and zinc. These minerals are expected to gain importance in the sector as new developments in contact technology have made them a more attractive alternative to expensive metals such as silver and gold.
Nickel is expected to play an even more significant role in energy storage as a key component of lithium-ion batteries as well as nickel-based batteries.
This case study focuses on the human rights record of nickel mining in order to illustrate the types of allegations linked to these companies in more depth. For more information on copper, please see our wind turbines case study.
The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre's Mineral Tracker recorded 18 allegations of human rights abuse against the top nickel mining companies worldwide and in the Southern African Development Community between 2010 and 2019.
The issues most often associated with these allegations were environmental and health impacts, indigenous people's rights and access to water. These concerns are well illustrated by the following two 'Spotlights' on nickel mining in Madagascar and New Caledonia.
Madagascar only recently joined the ranks of nickel-producing countries after the Ambatovy nickel and cobalt mine – the country’s biggest investment project yet – began operations in 2012. The project - an open pit mine developed on former rainforest - is a joint venture between Sherritt International, Sumitomo Corporation and Korea Resources Corporation.
The mining project has faced multiple allegations of air and water pollution affecting local community health, as well as increased risks of landslides over the years. Scientists and local conservationists have also held the mining complex responsible for introducing an invasive toxic toad species to the island, which has severely disrupted the ecosystem and is suspected to have caused multiple cases of human poisoning. The mine has denied these allegations although it offered to help eradication efforts.
After receiving several complaints of suspected environmental pollution from a neighbouring French landowner, the European Investment Bank (EIB) launched an investigation into the project it had financed with a € 215 million loan. Delays in the publication of a final report attracted significant criticism of the EIB’s complaints mechanism and eventually led the landowner to file a complaint with the European Ombudsman. The Ombudsman in turn found maladministration of the case, expressing concerns over the way the EIB monitors projects.
Sumitomo Corporation states that the Ambatovy project has undertaken a number of environmental protection measures. For more information, see here.
"The company doesn't hire local employees and those who did get themselves recruited were fired. Ambatovy has destroyed many things. Erosion has ruined the paddy fields and the forest, the water streams have dried up and the project has a negative impact on our health."Local resident testiment to Mongabay, 2018
The French territory of New Caledonia in the Pacific Islands was the third biggest producer of nickel in 2018, after Indonesia and the Philippines. Our Mineral Tracker tracked one company mining nickel from New Caledonia: Vale, and more specifically, the Goro project it acquired after its absorption of the Canadian mining company Inco. During the mine's construction phase, violent protests between the local indigenous Kanak group and police forces protecting the mining site illustrated the struggles neighbouring communities experienced in sharing their concerns over the environmental and economic impacts of the project. At the forefront of these concerns were the impacts on marine resources which local populations depend on for their livelihood.
However, in contrast to many of the allegations tracked by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, this conflict found a resolution in 2008 when representatives from the local indigenous group, environmental activists and the mining company signed an agreement for the sustainable development of the region. The agreement required the mining company to fund local development projects, establish a consultative committee with indigenous communities, and commit to an extensive reforestation program. Since its opening in 2010, the operation has suffered from various delays and environmental breaches, notably after acid spills contaminated local waterways with mercury. These technical difficulties have since forced the operation to seek financial relief from a French government loan.
In response to concerns about its New Caledonia nickel mining operations, Vale has stated that it has taken measures to restore the freshwater ecosystems following acid spills and is working to ensure communities benefit from its project. See further details here.
Nickel mining has put the environment and human rights at risk in Madagascar and New Caledonia. Unfortunately, these examples illustrate a broader trend in the nickel mining industry.
It is important for solar energy companies and their investors to recognize that solar panels may be linked to environmental and human rights harms at the beginning of their material supply chains.
Mining companies, investors and end consumers of nickel have a responsibility to ensure human rights are not abused in the production of this mineral.
Further resources on nickel mining and human rights
- Nickel mining: the hidden environmental cost of electric cars
- Nickel rally fades, electric vehicle buzz doesn't
- Huge demand for copper, cobalt, lithium and nickel in the offing as EV uptake increases
- Responsible Minerals Sourcing Moves Beyond 3TG
- Without responsibility and transparency - Human rights risks along the nickel supply chain
- Contesting the Goro Nickel Mining Project, New Caledonia: Indigenous Rights, Sustainable Development and the Land Issue
For more on the human rights impacts of nickel and other minerals see our Transition Minerals Tracker.