Are Solar Companies Really Committed to Sustainability?
Does it really matter if solar manufacturers aren’t that green? That’s the question I asked last week, in the wake of a report from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC).
The report, which scored the top 40 solar manufacturers on 12 social and environmental factors, found pretty dismal results: even the best companies — Trina, Yingli, SunPower, Upsolar and Solarworld — scored only so-so overall: Trina leads the pack with a score of 77 out of 100, while SolarWorld scored 64. Most of the companies — 25 out of 40 — earned fewer than 30 points in the rankings.
In response — though never directly mentioning SVTC’s report — the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is reiterating its commitment to sustainability.
Writing in RenewableEnergyWorld, John Smirnow, SEIA’s Vice President of Trade & Competitiveness, underlines the steps that SEIA has taken to get its member companies in line with sustainability best practices.
Starting in 2010, the SEIA convened representatives from across the solar industry to draft guidelines for social and environmental responsibility. The result was the creation of the Solar Industry Commitment to Environmental and Social Responsibility. Smirnow writes:
“The Solar Commitment established a set of solar-specific and general best practice provisions regarding the environment, labor, ethics, health and safety, and company management practices. The Solar Commitment has been adopted by companies throughout the solar supply chain, and companies that sign on must provide an annual report on several key performance indicators.”
Smirnow also lays out some of the areas where SEIA has created guidelines:
- PV Recycling
- Installer Health & Safety
- Environment and
- Building Codes & Product Standards
Of course, what’s missing is any kind of mandatory, binding requirement for SEIA members to abide by these practices — or, barring that, some clear, vocal commitment from the leading lights of the solar industry to support them. Sunpower, which scored third on the SVTC scorecard, has a sustainability page, including a sustainability report (albeit one that dates back to 2010…).
In fact, on the SVTC scorecard, nine of the top 10 companies have some kind of sustainability page — only REC Solar doesn’t have a page, but lists a commitment to “sustainability and environmental stewardship” on its About page. That’s a decent first step, but a report published earlier this month by two European waste-collection agencies, PV Cycle and Ceres, found that only 10 percent of the European Union’s solar waste gets recycled. Clearly, there’s plenty of room to improve.
I’ve been around the sustainable business beat for a long time, and solar is definitely not alone in looking up a long, rocky path to achieve real sustainability successes. There is a nearly unimaginable amount of work needed to bring the solar industry up to the same levels that other industries have acheived — but it can be done.
Plenty of companies in other technology- and manufacturing-intensive sectors have done great work on reducing their environmental impacts. The auto industy is a great example of a sector that is indirectly responsible for a huge slice of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and in the U.S. and Europe especially has managed to turn it around in ways that would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago.
Perhaps the big unasked question so far is: Do solar homeowners care?
To some extent it seems like a silly question — of course people who are investing potentially significant amounts of time and/or money to generate some or all of their electricity from the sun are trying to reduce their carbon footprints, right?
But the reality may be much more complicated, or it may be even less complicated, just counterintuitive: Even a year ago, we conducted a survey to find out why people go solar and found that nearly 75 percent wouldn’t have done it just to reduce emissions — the economic incentives were the real driver.
So I’ll put it to you: How much do you, readers, know or care about the environmental and social impacts of the solar systems you’re installing or considering for your homes? Does it matter more or less or the same if those panels were built in your own state (as opposed to overseas)?
Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook, or tweet them at me @mattwheeland. I’d love to hear from you!
Cracked solar panel photo CC-licensed by Steve Rainwater.