Proposed ‘forever chemicals’ ban rattles Europe’s cleantech sector

Chief Europe Correspondent
Red background with a hazard warning sign in the middle surrounded by a white drawing of a wind turbine, a battery, a solar panel, and an electrolyzer.
Illustration by Samson Awosan.

Europe’s clean energy industry is scrambling to respond to a ban under consideration across the European Union restricting so-called “forever chemicals.” 

These widely used, potentially harmful chemicals, also known by their collective acronym PFAS, are little discussed in the clean energy industry, yet they are crucial components of technologies like wind turbines, renewable hydrogen, electric batteries and power grids. 

The proposal, which is near the beginning of a yearslong review process within the bloc, is stoking anxiety among Europe’s cleantech leaders, who are telling EU policymakers in Brussels that the move could derail the bloc’s ambitions to become a climate tech champion. 

“Cleantech manufacturing wasn’t a big European political priority a few years ago,” said Constantine Levoyannis, head of EU affairs at the Norwegian company NEL, a manufacturer of electrolyzers, a technology that makes hydrogen with renewable energy. “The primary focus was on boosting renewables and setting targets but somewhere down the road we disregarded where that cleantech comes from.” 

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of thousands of synthetic chemicals that resist extreme heat and corrosion, making them useful in thousands of products, including cars, textiles, medical gear and non-stick pans. 

Because of that, the chemicals also don’t break down over time, causing them to build up in soil and circulate globally in the water and atmosphere. Some types of PFAS have been linked to health risks like cancer, hormonal dysfunction and a weakened immune system, as well as environmental damage. 

Addressing the chemicals has moved higher on EU policymakers’ agendas in recent years, due to PFAS-related pollution scandals and lawsuits. A recent study found high levels of PFAS in many EU countries, with Belgium topping the list. 

Five European countries — Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and non-EU member Norway — submitted the proposed ban in February to the EU’s regulatory arm, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). 

The countries, known for being cleantech pioneers, highlighted the prevalence of PFAS across the globe, including in penguins in Antarctica, and cited tens of billions of dollars in annual health costs from PFAS exposure.  

Environmentalists and consumer organizations welcomed the proposed ban. 

The ban proposal includes requests to exempt certain sectors, such as pharmaceuticals and agrichemicals. The cleantech sector was not included in the exemptions for a mix of reasons, according to several industry officials Cipher spoke to on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. 

They said cleantech companies didn’t lobby proactively enough for an exemption at earlier stages of the proposal deliberations, the environment departments within the five countries crafting the proposal largely did not consult with their energy counterparts and cleantech developers are not always sure if their products contain PFAS and figuring out if they do takes time.  

Representatives of the European cleantech industry say they recognize the concerns around PFAS but argue not all PFAS are the same and the proposed ban is too broad, especially given existing alternatives are often not effective.  

They are now calling for exemptions and say a blanket ban could divert valuable cleantech investments away from the EU at a time when the bloc wants to ramp up green technology manufacturing. 

Gerardo Familiar, president of advanced performance materials at Chemours, lamented the lack of coherence in the proposal, saying it goes against the wider ambitions to be a leader in renewable hydrogen production.  

“We need to make sure that the right hand talks to the left hand,” he said at an event earlier this year in Brussels. 

Chemours is among the companies that submitted comments to ECHA during a six-month consultation on the proposed ban that wrapped up at the end of September. 

The agency received around 5,600 responses to the consultation and had made about 2,900 public as of September 28. Of those, 1,472 came from trade associations or companies and roughly 8.5% included the words “clean energy,” “energy transition,” or “EU Green Deal” in their responses, according to an analysis shared with Cipher by Foresight, a consultancy based in Northern Ireland that helps companies navigate chemical regulations.  

Along with Chemours, fellow chemicals giant Dupont as well as the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU, Tesla and Siemens Energy have also commented. ECHA is expected to publish more responses in the coming weeks. 

A type of PFAS known as fluoropolymers, which Chemours uses and would fall under the ban, plays an essential role in electrolyzers.  

Hydrogen Europe, a Brussels-based lobby group, said fluoropolymers have a lower toxicity level than other PFAS and there is no alternative on the market. 

Should they be banned, it would be devastating for the fuel cell and electrolyser industry and for the whole decarbonisation mission,” the group said in a statement to Cipher. 

Two types of PFAS, known as PVDF and PTFE, are key to battery function. They help the battery charge and discharge, while also helping stabilize chemical reactions that can extend the life of the battery. 

No alternative options can do the job as well as PFAS at the moment, but this might change in several years as innovation picks up, said Maxime Castes, sustainability manager at Eurobat, the Brussels-based lobbyist association of European automotive and industrial battery manufacturers. 

“We understand this might be a way to put pressure on industry [to go PFAS-free] but one of the risks is that it might frighten off investors, with consequences on achieving the EU Green Deal and the competitiveness of the EU battery industry,” said Castes. 

In the wind industry, PFAS are used for coating blades, as well as in turbines and towers. Alexander Vandenberghe, sustainability manager at the lobbyist group WindEurope, said PFAS-free solutions do exist, so the proposed ban would not hit those manufacturing processes badly. 

However, PFAS are also widely used in switchgears for electrical grids, so “we are a bit anxious with that really strict [ban] approach… considering the grid buildout that we will need,” he said. 

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency announced measures to regulate six types of PFAS in drinking water earlier this year. Several U.S. states also have, or plan to have, rules for regulating PFAS in drinking water. The clean energy sector is not affected since the regulations are narrowly targeted at certain types of PFAS not commonly used in cleantech.

ECHA is expected to come out with a recommendation to the European Commission early next year. The ban and any exemptions will then face scrutiny from the 27 EU governments and the European Parliament. That is not expected to happen before 2025. 

If Europe is really serious about cleantech being made in Europe, then we need to make sure the broader European legislative framework is cohesive in enabling this,” Levoyannis said.