Does It Matter that Solar Panel Makers Aren’t That Green?

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Solar panels are the beneficiaries of a significant green halo: Your solar-powered home (or solar-powered car) gets zero-emission energy sourced from the sun, and you’re saving a bunch of money on your energy bill at the same time.

One less often-discussed facet of solar power is that it takes a lot of resources and energy to make solar panels, and manufacturing solar panels isn’t always the cleanest process. And while the case often gets overstated in the conservative media (see Media Matters’ solid debunking of the myths of solar here), a new report from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition underscores the fact that yes, solar manufacturers do have negative environmental impacts, and they’re not that abstract for the people who work in and live near those manufacturing facilities.

For the fourth year running, SVTC has published its Solar Scorecard, ranking the top solar manufacturers on 12 different factors related to social and environmental impacts from their operations, ranging from end-of-life recycling to the toxicity of the modules to worker rights and health and safety concerns.

Despite a booming year for home solar installations, the trend on the manufacturing side is grimmer: just 10 companies, only 25 percent of the firms in the survey, responded to SVTC. And another 10 companies make no environmental information available on their corporate websites.

And 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.

These scores pose a bit of a conundrum for an industry that has historically been concerned primarily with environmental benefits, not negatives. More recently we’re seeing a shift in priorities among solar homeowners, where saving on electricity bills is of higher importance than reducing one’s carbon footprint, but if the solar industry gets a reputation for dirty practices, it could greatly reduce its adoption rates.

“We don’t think [these results are] a good sign for the industry. If there’s an economic downturn, the first people to go are the sustainability people, and we don’t want to see that happen,” Sheila Davis, executive director of the SVTC, told The Guardian. “Sustainability should be a core of the solar industry model.”

Download the full four-page scorecard from SolarScorecard.com.

Matthew Wheeland
Author: Matthew Wheeland

Matthew Wheeland is the editor of SolarEnergy.net. He has been an environmental journalist for nearly 15 years, covering everything from farming to green chemistry to corporate sustainability. Follow him on Twitter @MattWheeland.

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