SunPower, SolarWorld top 2015 solar scorecard

The failure of many solar companies to report on sustainability could undermine the entire solar industry.

SunPower, SolarWorld and Trina have earned the top scores in the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition’s 2015 Solar Scorecard, which ranks manufacturers of solar photovoltaic modules according to several environmental, sustainability and social justice factors.

REC, Yingli, JA Solar, AUO, LG, First Solar and Upsolar rounded out the top 10 performers. JA Solar showed the most dramatic improvement from the 2014 Solar Scorecard — jumping from a total score of 10 out of 100 in 2014 to 77 in 2015.

SunEdison, Hyundai, Hareon Solar, Gintech, SolarGiga, Suniva, Miasole and Andalay Solar all received the worst scores on this year’s list.

Now in its sixth year, the scorecard gives solar companies "sunny," "partly cloudy" and "rainy" ratings for extended producer responsibility (EPR); high value recycling; chemical reduction plans; workers rights, health and safety; supply chains; module toxicity; biodiversity; energy and greenhouse gasses; conflict minerals; water; and prison labor.

"We developed the criteria for the scorecard based largely on our experience in the electronic industry," Sheila Davis, executive director of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, told GreenBiz. "Over a series of year now, we’ve honed those questions and continued to develop them.

"What we’ve tried to do is fill the void where there were no standards for solar. We initially noticed that solar companies were calling themselves ‘clean,’ but there were no definitions for what’s clean or what’s green."

Although only 13 companies representing just under 36 percent of the total PV module market share responded to the 2015 scorecard, this was nearly double the number of firms that responded last year. For those that didn’t respond, SVTC gathered the remainder of the information from publicly available documentation.

Participation in the scorecard remains inconsistent, largely due to bankruptcies, restructuring and new entries into the solar manufacturing market, Davis said.

But interest and participation is likely to continue to increase as the scorecard transitions into a formal accredited standard by 2017, she said. And many solar companies who originally had mixed feelings about the scorecard have grown to embrace it.

 

In November 2014, SVTC announced plans to expand its scorecard into a standard that meets the criteria of the American National Standards Institute. This ultimately will lead to a label that solar customers can use to determine if the solar panels they purchased have achieved a standard of social and environmental sustainability.

Failure to report leaves solar industry in the dark

Reporting on the use of hazardous chemicals to the public remain inconsistent due to the variegated methods used by solar manufacturers. And only six solar manufacturers — Trina, AUO, SunPower, SolarWorld, Sharp and JA Solar — do extensive chemical emissions disclosure and reporting on their websites, the scorecard showed.

Sixteen companies reported one or more categories of emissions, including hazardous waste, heavy metals, air pollution, ozone depleting substances and landfill disposal.

Fourteen companies manufacture modules with amounts of cadmium or lead below regulatory thresholds set by the European Union — the world’s most stringent standard. This indicates that the maximum concentration found in any homogenous material that makes up these PV modules is less than 0.01 percent for cadmium and 0.10 percent or less for lead, SVTC says.

 

Many solar companies fail to address sustainability concerns because they have more immediate matters — such as surviving in a competitive business environment. But this failure to look at long-term sustainability impacts could hurt the entire industry’s bottom lines in the long run.

"In some ways, the biggest threat to the solar industry as a whole is if they don’t perform environmentally," said Dustin Mulvaney, an associate professor at San Jose State University who helped SVTC interpret the scores. "We’ve seen in several instances over the past six or seven years when an investigative journalist goes out and finds something in the practices of a particular company, that ends up blemishing the industry as a whole."

And this can even directly harm solar stock prices.

Accountability for ensuring safe disposal

Six solar manufacturers have written letters to the Solar Energy Industries Association seeking action on extended producer responsibility for PV modules in the United States, twice as many as from the 2014 scorecard. Although most modules sold in Europe are covered by a pre-funded EPR scheme to ensure safe and responsible disposal, this isn’t the case in the U.S. market.

EPRs took off in Europe largely due to a lack of space for landfills, Davis said, but in the U.S. many companies have resisted. Although there has been some headway made at the state level to implement EPR schemes, much less progress has been made at the federal level.

Over the past six SVTC surveys, 14 companies have said they would support public policy for an EPR scheme for PV modules — but SolarWorld’s 2015 letter openly expressed concern regarding SEIA’s ability to provide leadership in EPR policy development.

"White box" solar manufacturers have in many ways led to a "race to the bottom" to offer cheap products and hide their environmental footprint. The market may reward this in the short term, but doesn’t bode well for the solar industry’s long-term viability. By failing to build environmental, sustainability and social-justice into their business models, these firms risk undermining others' operations.

High-value recycling key to solar’s survival

As the solar industry matures, stronger environmental regulations loom, and those companies that embrace transparency now will have the most to gain.

The very viability of solar as an energy source may depend on establishing effective closed loop sustainability practices sooner than later.

"Every kind of solar technology has some kind of rare or precious metal that limits its overall deployment," Mulvaney said. “Studies have shown that we can’t power all human civilization demand with the limited amount of resources for these particular metals. And unlike other commodities, there are only so many materials that exhibit these properties for solar.”

In other words, we can’t just invent substitute materials for solar panels.

"If we can direct these companies to high-value recycling, we are providing them with another source for inputs to make solar panels well into the future," he said.

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