The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition today released its fifth annual Solar Scorecard, ranking the world’s largest solar companies on their efforts to improve — and communicate — their environmental impacts.
[Editor’s note: This post was updated on Nov. 11 to include comments from SEIA.]
This year’s scorecard, which the SVTC compiles through sending surveys to solar manufacturers as well as searching those companies’ websites for publicly available information, finds that some progress is happening in improving the environmental footprint of the solar business, although there remains a huge gap between the industry’s leaders and the middle of the pack — not to mention the laggards.
As we reported last year, solar companies often benefit from a significant “green halo,” with the benefits of the clean energy they make possible more than outweighing the negative impacts from producing those panels. That trend continues to be the case, according to Sheila Davis, SVTC’s executive director.
“It’s easy to be at the bottom; people are still focused on climate change for renewables, they’re not focused on sustainability for this sector,” Davis explained. “There has been a lot of change in the industry; people have been more price-conscious about solar and not as sustainability-focused.”
Each year, the Scorecard looks at a wide range of environmental and health impacts, including end-of-life takeback; worker rights, health and safety; water use; greenhouse gas emissions; use of prison labor and more. Companies earn points on a scale of 100 depending on if and how well they respond to SVTC’s survey and how much information is publicly available on their website.
The top-ranked companies in this year’s Scorecard are much the same as last year: Trina (92), SunPower (88) and Yingli (81) are in the top spots. SolarWorld (73) and REC (71) round out the top 5 companies that SVTC has designated as “industry leaders.”
On the bottom end of the spectrum, there are eight firms that scored below 10 points out of a possible 100: Hareon Solar, Jinko, Miasole, Suniva, Hyundai, Gintech, NBSolar and Andalay Solar.
The middle of the pack is a much broader group, with any score above 30 considered by SVTC to be “industry average” — which underlines that huge gap between the leaders and the rest of the bunch. And this is where the scorecard offers some insight into the state of the solar business. The market share for the biggest companies has fallen dramatically over the last five years, and even just in the last two years, through economic upheaval as well as mergers and acquisitions. The emergence of small, generic manufacturers has also changed the landscape of the solar business.
Dustin Mulvaney, SVTC’s science advisor and a professor at San Jose State University, explained just how big of a chunk of the industry is unmapped. “We have about 25 percent of the industry that we can’t account for that we don’t know where it’s coming from,” Mulvaney explained. “There may be hundreds of these companies and they are probably small. Sometimes they’re making products for a brand label and sometimes they’re not.”
One of the issues with this mystery portion of the solar supply chain is simply that there’s no knowing what they are or are not doing for people and the planet — unless there’s a problem, such as with a big toxic spill in 2011 by Jinko Solar, which resulted in a poisoned river and violent protests in China. Until companies disclose how they make their solar panels, there’s no way to know if they’re improving.
Creating a Clean Solar Standard
SVTC has just begun working to counteract the unknown impacts of solar manufacturing by creating a certification system to reward the companies that follow best practices. Over the course of the next two years, SVTC will be developing a standard for solar panels that aims to be listed on the well-regarded EPEAT registry.
Such a standard would help companies and consumers drive progress in the market — and change can happen quite quickly, as the EPEAT label proved with consumer electronics. Shining a light on the companies that are leading the pack will give strong encouragement to those companies lagging behind to clean up their acts.
Some of the leading companies in this year’s Solar Scorecard have already achieved results that show what can be achieved. Mulvaney noted that four companies — Trina, SunPower, SolarWorld and Sharp — have already created good frameworks for reporting chemical emissions. And SunPower took the ambitious step of earning Cradle to Cradle certification for some of its modules, a process that requires extensive evaluation and reporting on its manufacturing practices. Other companies, primarily those based in Europe, where recycling is required under WEEE, have strong takeback programs in place — something that U.S. firms are lacking.
Ken Johnson, spokesperson for the Solar Energy Industries Association, noted that end-of-life issues are here to stay. “PV recycling will be an increasingly important issue for the industry and is a priority for SEIA,” Johnson explained by email. “We expect to see a few industry-led PV recycling initiatives develop over the next few years. Given the long life of solar modules, 25 years or more, it will be several years before large volumes of PV modules reach their useful end of life. Nonetheless, we need to be ready when the time comes, so we’re taking proactive steps to incentivize investments in solar module recycling.”
The end goal of the Solar Scorecard, and the work of the SVTC, is to build sustainability into the industry now, during the early stages of what promises to be a long-lasting and rapidly growing industry, so that when today’s solar panels finally reach the end of their useful lives in 20 or 30 years, there is a strong system in place to recycle them, and the new panels have been designed with sustainability in mind.
“What would’ve happened if, 25 years ago when consumer electronics and desktops were becoming popular, we said ‘let’s figure out a way to recycle the desktops now’ — each year they would be more responsible,” explained Davis. “By this time, a lot of kinks would be worked out and we’d be in a much better place with recycling products. With solar, this is such a good opportunity to get engaged early on so that 20 to 25 years from now recycling is just a no-brainer.”
Solar manufacturing photo CC-licensed by Gigasolar on Flickr.