As more and more solar electricity lights up homes and businesses across the country, it also highlights a growing and vexing issue: how do you safely recycle discarded solar panels? And should solar companies follow a similar set of sustainable practices as the electronics industry?
This debate could intensify with the publication of the latest Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) Solar Dashboard Tuesday. The dashboard, based on survey responses and publicly available information, ranks the actions and commitments of 37 solar power manufacturers on practices such as emissions reporting, efficient use of water and energy, preventing the use of conflict materials and promoting worker health and safety.
For companies that are also developing and building solar power plants, the coalition is looking at how they incorporate wildlife conservation into their projects.
“When the cleantech movement started, the solar industry had many similar environmental impacts to the microelectronics industry that the SVTC had examined,” said Sheila Davis, executive director of the coalition. “We wanted to make sure the solar industry is clean.”
The No. 1 spot went to Trina Solar, a Chinese company which received 92 points out of 100. Silicon Valley-based SunPower took second place with 88 points, followed by Yingli Green Energy (81), also a company Chinese. Germany-based SolarWorld (73) and Norwegian-based REC (71) round out the top five lists.
Eight companies, including Suniva, Andalay Solar, Jinko Solar and Hyandai, scored below 10.
The 2014 scorecard is the fifth from the coalition, a non-profit organization that works with investors who consider sustainability as a criterion for deciding which companies to invest their money in. The solar industry has grown rapidly. The US market should install 6.5 gigawatts solar panels in 2014, or 6.5 times the installations in 2000, according to GTM Research. Overall, the solar market should build 50 gigawatts of solar panels, according to SolarBuzz. The 19.5 gigawatts likely to be added in the fourth quarter alone would exceed what was installed in all of 2010.
“The dashboard is useful for giving investors an independent view of the industry,” said Steven Heim, managing director and director of environmental social governance research at Boston Common Asset Management. “We can then see if that raises any questions or highlights any businesses we might consider.”
Boston Common is helping the coalition by sending out a letter – accompanying the survey – to urge businesses to participate. It is also the public face of the more than 25 institutional investors in North America and Europe who have signed the letter. Investors collectively manage $1.6 billion in assets, Heim said.
A solar panel is made up of solar cells and electronics to transport the electricity produced. The most common material for solar cells is silicon, the same ingredient found in the chips that power computers and cell phones. the filming process silicon in cells involves the use of many gases, chemicals and metals and leaves behind toxic wastes that pose health risks to workers and the environment.
The coalition began to take an interest in the environmental management of the solar industry after seeing the emergence of numerous silicon processing plants in the late 2000s to meet the rapidly growing demand. Many of these factories originated in China, which was also home to makers who became the world’s leading solar cell and panel makers and held initial public offerings on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq.
One of the most publicized incidents of environmental mismanagement involved Jinko Solar and its dumping of toxic waste from its facility in China’s Zhejiang province into a river. The 2011 incident sparked a three-day event villagers upset by the large number of dead fish in the river, brought out riot police and prompted the company to suspend operations there.
Jinko said he unintentionally dumped “a small amount of solid waste” into the river and credited heavy rain with causing dumping of waste containers outside his warehouse.
The 37 companies in the 2014 scoreboard represent about 75% of the manufacturing sector, the coalition said. Only seven manufacturers, representing 25% of the industry, responded to the survey. The coalition then gathered more data from public records, such as company websites, regulatory filings and news. The survey response rate increased from 34.6% in 2012 to 51.1% in 2012, partly reflecting the high number of manufacturers that have significantly reduced or ceased operations in recent years due to supply exceeded demand.
Some low-scoring companies didn’t want to talk about the dashboard. A few explained why they did not respond to surveys. Hanwha SolarOne said in a statement that the company did not have time to respond to the survey and that the score, 10 out of 100, “is by no means an accurate measure of the sustainability of HSOL’s business.” .
Andalay Solar, a penny stock, outsources manufacturing work and struggles to survive, which is why it did not respond to the survey, said Wei-Tai Kwok, chief operating officer of Andalay, based in Silicon Valley. The company is changing its business model to move away from selling solar panels and will instead focus on licensing its mounting system that supports solar panels.
Canadian Solar, which has a score of 14, said in a statement that the coalition demanded too much detail about the company’s business practices. The company said it declined to take the survey and argued the score was inaccurate because the coalition “penalizes companies that did not participate in the SVTC survey”.
“In conclusion, if the SVTC does not change its reporting and filing practices, we may pursue legal action,” the Canadian Solar statement said.
Davis said Canadian Solar’s statement was “unusual” and the information the coalition seeks is something that would typically be included in a corporate social responsibility report.
“We actively reached out to companies because we want solar companies to succeed and the solar industry to be an environmental leader,” Davis said.
The rating weighted issues such as solar panel recycling, worker safety and emissions reporting. Recycling is a critical issue, according to the coalition, which would like to see the US solar industry fund a program that collects used panels for proper recycling.
The coalition hopes the Solar Energy Industries Association will take the lead in expanding the recycling program and motivating its members to plan and report their sustainable practices. The association seems slow to tackle the recycling issue, let alone set up a program, Davis said.
“We were told that they were going to publish a report last year and [were] look into it,” Davis said. “So far we haven’t seen any action from them.”
The trade group said it was working to determine “the best next step for the industry in recycling”. said John Smirnow, the association’s vice president of trade and competitiveness. The association is looking at ways to provide incentives for building and operating recycling centers and is closely watching California, which is likely to be the first in the country to pass solar-specific recycling regulations, said Smirnow.
Smirnow said the trade group understands the need for its members to take sustainability issues seriously and launched the “Solar Industry Commitment and Environmental and Social Responsibility » in 2013. The document includes some key sustainability issues that its signatories promise to address, such as reducing energy consumption, creating a safe working environment, and properly disposing of hazardous materials and other wastes.
More than two dozen companies have signed on to the document, including big-name manufacturers, such as Trina, Yingli and SunPower, Smirnow said.
After five years of ranking the world’s best solar companies, the coalition now plans to create a sustainability standard – as well as a registry aimed at influencing purchasing decisions for buyers of solar power equipment, from installers to developers of power plants – and convince solar companies to follow this.
The coalition is working with the Green Electronics Council to create the standard and registry, and also hopes to recruit solar companies. The Green Electronics Council operates a register on electronic manufacturing.
“We’ve been encouraged by some of the companies that want to show they’re going beyond what the regulations say,” said Dustin Mulvaney, coalition science adviser and assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of San Jose State. “I have great faith in the solar industry.”
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