When it comes to helping solve climate change and making the most out of renewable energy, the solar industry often views its work through the shimmering light of a green halo.
But beyond making the technology that turns sunlight into electricity, solar panel makers haven’t exactly been transparent with what else they are doing to be green.
The making of a solar system can be a dirty and toxic business. The process requires mining for silica to build the most commonly used residential solar panels, which are silicon-based. It can also require the use of harsh chemicals, such as hydrochloric acid as well as other potentially dangerous solvents and gases.
To help ensure solar companies are using environmentally sound manufacturing practices, and that a solar system’s end-of-life care is managed in a safe and sustainable fashion is Sheila Davis, executive director of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC).
In 2006, Davis took the helm of the now San Francisco-based nonprofit, which uses research and advocacy to address issues around the production, use and disposal of electronic products on human health and the environment. The organization moved headquarters from San Jose, Calif. in 2012.
The coalition was founded in the early ‘80s after groundwater contamination was discovered near high-tech manufacturing plants in Silicon Valley. Toxic chemicals had been leaking out of underground storage tanks owned by Fairchild Semiconductor and IBM.
Under Davis’ leadership, SVTC has stepped up its efforts to take a harder look at solar and the industry’s sustainable businesses practices. To that end, the coalition released in November its fifth annual Solar Scorecard, which measures and ranks solar manufacturers by an array of environmental and social justice factors.
Davis’ previous work experience includes co-founding in 2005 the Computer TakeBack Campaign, which aimed to make consumer electronic manufacturers take greater responsibility for the life cycle of their products. She also helped lead in the early ‘90s one the United States’ first pilot programs to collect and recycle electronic waste from the residential curbside.
At SVTC Davis runs a tight ship with a budget of about $250,000. She is the only full-time employee for the coalition and works mostly with contractors and volunteers to get the organization’s work done.
SolarEnergy.net spoke with Davis about her work to boost solar manufacturers’ green practices, and what the industry needs to be mindful of as solar expands into energy-poor regions of the world — like Uganda, where only 15 percent of people have access to electricity, and recycling programs are often times nonexistent. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How does SVTC’s Solar Scorecard, which ranks solar manufacturers’ sustainable business efforts, shed light on industry practices?
The Solar Scorecard really emphasizes transparency. We are asking basic, nonproprietary questions. It doesn’t look good for companies not to answer these questions, or to not be transparent about what they’re doing.
Companies that don’t post anything on their website, and don’t answer the survey, and don’t answer our calls, I think it’s indicative of the way that they respond to the public about their environmental practices. We discourage consumers from purchasing solar products from these companies.
What were some of the challenges you faced early on when trying to capture a fair portrait of solar’s manufacturing practices?
During the first several years of doing the scorecard we were really trying to figure out what questions solar companies could answer. This industry is relatively new, and a lot of companies were still in the startup phase.
Among the criticisms we heard from startups was that we shouldn’t use the same scoring criteria for them as we use for the larger companies, which we thought was a fair argument. So we stopped evaluating startups.
We’ve taken all the criticisms and feedback that we’ve gotten from companies and we’ve tried to incorporate it into the scorecard and into the questions. We’ve also made an effort over the last several years to be very transparent about our scoring. We post on our website how the scoring works.
When SVTC released its latest Solar Scorecard in November, the coalition gave solar giant Canadian Solar one of the lowest scores. The company threatened potential legal action after accusing SVTC in The Guardian of unfair communication practices and error-based rankings. Did the threat of a lawsuit cause any type of chilling effect on SVTC’s work?
Of course we were highly concerned. But it’s not usual for companies to threaten NGOs that are pushing the issue, or that are a making a difference. What typically happens is that a company can put a small nonprofit out of business just by filing a lawsuit. Nonprofits have to hire lawyers just to respond to the legal threats. The cost of attorney fees can put a small non-profit out of business.
Luckily insurance companies provide that type of legal protection for nonprofits.
SVTC has also been keeping an eye on off-grid solar as it is increasingly being deployed to regions of the world that have no access to electricity. What are your concerns when it comes to the adoption of the technology in areas where recycling infrastructures don’t always existent?
The type of solar technology that is being deployed, primarily in Africa and some parts of India and Asia, are mostly small, off-grid solar systems for the home that are made up of a solar panel for generating energy, and a lead-acid battery to store that energy. With this type of off-grid solar system you can charge your phone or lights, or run other small appliances on it. We are also seeing small solar lanterns deployed.
These are important products and we feel that the market should be expanded. However, often there is not solid waste disposal, collection or recycling infrastructure to responsibly manage these products at end of life. Electronic products in rural areas of Africa are burned in a ditch, or buried at end of life. That’s not what we want to see as an outcome for solar. We want to make sure that at the end of life there is some sort of responsible management.
What is SVTC doing to improve solar’s end-of-life management in developing countries?
We are exploring ways to work with existing businesses to support product repair and recycling infrastructure. African countries have vibrant reuse and repair sectors. We hope to find ways to extend the life of solar products through its reuse and repair by providing training, and encouraging solar companies to provide repair manuals and to make spare parts available.
We also hope to work with solar companies to design off-grid solar products so that they can be easily repaired and recycled. SVTC is working with The University of Edinburgh and the University of California, Santa Cruz to develop design guidelines that take into account the whole life cycle of off-grid solar products. We will eventually use the guidelines as the base of our criteria to score solar products on recyclability.
What’s been your greatest leadership challenge when it comes to getting the solar industry, as well as the high-tech industry, to adopt sustainable business practices that include a product’s entire life cycle?
The challenge is to take lessons learned from SVTC’s 30-year history and to use these lessons so that we can lead the way forward.
The high-tech industry and its products change rapidly, so we should also expect rapid change in the areas of sustainability.