What Does Trina Solar’s Carbon Footprint Say About the Industry?

solar homesSolar power is the future of energy. With demand for home solar skyrocketing, prices for solar installations plummeting, and smart solar policies becoming more common, the next decade will see an ever-faster solar boom.

Now, we just need to make the solar future as green as possible.

The solar boom is discussed often enough, but what is not as frequently mentioned is the environmental footprint that makes the solar boom possible. From sourcing the raw materials to make solar modules to the pollution byproducts from manufacturing them, making clean energy can be a relatively dirty practice.

Efforts to bring the solar industry in line with other major global industries, which have long since gotten on board the sustainability train, are slow in coming. So I was impressed to see last month when Trina Solar announced that it had gotten the carbon footprint of its solar modules verified by a third party.

On the company’s sustainability page, Trina Solar details not only the CO2 emissions from making each of its modules — 781.8 kilograms per model from the entire manufacturing process — but several other critically important trends in its sustainable evolution. Notably, the company has cut the electricity needed to make a solar module by 64 percent since 2009, and the water needed by 54 percent in the same time frame.

These are admirable figures, both because of the major reductions they represent as well as from the simple fact that they’re reporting them publicly. And it’s no surprise, coming from Trina: The company just last month earned the top spot in the Solar Scorecard from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, yet again.

Coming from a leader in the industry, getting a carbon footprint verified is just another sign of the company’s leadership. And while Trina representatives did not return requests for comment, I asked the SVTC what it meant.

“The fact that Trina has conducted this is more evidence of their leadership,” explained Dustin Mulvaney, SVTC’s science advisor and a professor at San Jose State University. “However, other companies such as First Solar, SolarWorld, and Sunpower have previously conducted ISO 14067 quality carbon footprints, so Trina was not the first.”

Additionally, Mulvaney reminded me of a report out earlier in 2014 from Argonne National Laboratory that found solar panels made in China are twice as carbon-intensive as panels made in Europe, due to lower environmental standards for manufacturing in China, as well as the prominence of dirty coal-fired electricity in the country.

Instead of footprinting its panels, Mulvaney suggested that “a bigger impact for Trina’s sustainability would be to eschew all fossil fuels in PV manufacturing. Coal and natural gas for thermal energy could be replaced with biogas/biomass. PV, wind, biogas and geothermal could be used to make electricity.”

In fact, solar-powered solar manufacturing may just be the future of solar (which is, recall, the future of energy). When SolarCity announced plans to invest $5 billion to build a massive, 1 gigawatt-per-year solar manufacturing facility in Buffalo, N.Y., solar panels are part and parcel of the power supply of the facility. (Although specifics are still pretty vague; the developers’ master plan for the site says simply “Wind turbines, solar energy, and energy efficient buildings combine to create an environment where renewable energy is produced on-site and consumption is managed and minimized by good design.”)

Solar-powered solar manufacturing certainly sounds like a no-brainer to me. And hopefully as inevitable as our solar-powered future. But in the meantime, moves like Trina’s carbon footprint (and First Solar, SolarWorld and Sunpower making those moves as well) are a welcome step in the right direction.

Solar homes photo courtesy of Trina Solar’s sustainability report.

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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