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Solar industry leaves sustainability survey in the dark

Solar production may be significantly cleaner than burning fossil fuels, but the solar industry continues to be plagued by electronic waste issues. In the U.S., the millions of solar panels created each year results in millions of pounds of polluted sludge and contaminated water. Although it is a pervasive problem, an alarming number of solar companies don’t want to talk about it.

Only seven solar companies — representing just over 25 percent of the total photovoltaic module market share — responded in detail to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition’s Fifth Annual 2014 Solar Scorecard (PDF), released Tuesday. This year shows a marked decline in responses from 51 percent in 2012. The survey ranks 37 solar manufacturers — about 75 percent of the whole solar industry — on a range of environmental, sustainability and social justice factors.

Trina and SunPower came in first and second, respectively, while Yingli, SolarWorld and REC rounded out the top five. Notably, SolarWorld and Yingli have respond to the Solar Scorecard survey every year since 2010. SolarWorld has achieved the highest overall score across all five Solar Scorecards to date, SVTC says.

The rest of the scorecard doesn’t look pretty. Although the top five companies averaged a score of 70 out of 100, the remaining 32 firms averaged a paltry score of 30. Hanwha SolarOne and JA Solar both tied for dead last, receiving 10s.

Only 10 companies post annual hazardous chemical reduction targets on their websites or in sustainability reports, the ranking shows. SolarWorld, Yingli, REC and Sharp reported conducting extensive chemical emissions disclosure and reporting. Some 13 companies reported one or more categories of emissions — hazardous waste, heavy metals, air pollution, ozone depleting substances and landfill disposal.

No companies could provide documentation to verify that their supply chains do not contain conflict minerals based on the due diligence guidelines set by the OECD. However, 12 are engaged in or have started the process of due diligence to determine if conflict minerals are present in their supply chains.

On a brighter note, 14 firms over the past three SVTC surveys have said they would support public policy for an extended producer responsibility scheme for PV modules. Trina, Yingli and Up Solar have written letters to the Solar Energy Industries Association seeking action on recycling for PV modules in the United States.

Another source of encouragement comes from SunPower achieving a Cradle to Cradle Silver Certification for some of its PV modules, which required extensive evaluation and reporting on manufacturing practices.

The SVTC said it plans to use the Solar Scorecard as the basis for a new environmental leadership standard for solar PV modules. It will partner with renewable energy and green procurement leaders, as well as the nonprofit Green Electronic Council, to expand the scorecard into a standard that meets the criteria of the American National Standards Institute.

The moral of the story is similar to last year's: The rise of “white box” solar manufacturers has the potential to drive a “race to the bottom." Companies offering cheap products and hiding their environmental footprint may be rewarded by the market in the short term, but this doesn’t bode well for the solar industry’s long term viability. Solar companies risk undermining their operations by failing to build environmental, sustainability and social justice considerations into their business models. The most successful solar firms will have nothing to hide, and everything to gain from embracing transparency.

“It’s critically important for companies to collect and report chemical use and emissions data,” said Assistant Professor Dustin Mulvaney of San Jose State University, SVTC’s science adviser. “The more transparency there is on this issue, the more likely it is that companies will be able to compete to reduce their emissions per PV module.”

Even though its environmental impact reporting remains hazy, the sun is shining on the U.S. solar industry — more than half a million homes and businesses are generating solar energy nationwide, according to SEIA. Cumulative PV and concentrating solar power operating capacity in the U.S. has eclipsed 15.9 gigawatts, enough to power more than 3.2 million homes.

Those numbers are only set to grow as solar energy generation becomes cheaper and more efficient. Deutsche Bank recently forecasted that rooftop solar PV will achieve grid parity — or be capable of generating electricity at a levelized cost that is less than or equal to the price of purchasing power from the electricity grid — in all 50 states by 2016. When this happens, we may well see a revolutionary shift to widespread solar adoption.

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