Every year, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) sends out a survey to PV solar manufacturers. Though companies do not have to respond, this does not stop the SVTC from evaluating them. It simply means there is less information and, consequently, they receive lower marks. The “Industry Leaders” on SVTC’s 5th annual 2014 scorecard are: Trina Solar (92), SunPower (88), Yingli Green Energy (81), SolarWorld (73) and REC (71).
Some of the better known names to receive below average marks are Canadian Solar (14), JA Solar (10), Hanwha SolarOne (11), Kyocera (18) and Solar Frontier (19).
“Some companies actually scored lower than that,” said Sheila Davis, Executive Director at SVTC. “The range of marks is a reflection on how transparent the companies are.”
Only 29 of the 37 companies evaluated this year are displayed on the scorecard. The industry’s average score, out of a possible 100, was 31.
“The companies that score at the top range and are considered leaders are typically the ones over the past five years who have taken time to fill out the survey,” Davis added. “Many have really improved their performance over several years. They are committed to environmental practices and making this known to the public.”
“They have very robust sustainability practices and emissions reporting and they are making this information available,” said Dustin Mulvaney, SVTC Science Advisor and Assistant Professor at San Jose State University.
Two companies – SolarWorld and Yingli – have responded to every Solar Scorecard since 2010. SolarWorld has achieved the highest overall score during that period.
“As leaders in the solar power industry, we are committed not only to renewable energy, but also to transparency and responsible production, including independent verifications, such as SVTC’s Solar Scorecard. We encourage all of our competitors in this industry to make the same commitment,” said Mukesh Dulani, President of SolarWorld Americas Inc.
Four of the “Industry Leaders” do extensive chemical emissions disclosure and reporting. The exception, Trina Solar, is the only company to have its facilities certified by SA 8000 (a standard for worker health and safety).
Mulvaney added, “There are some elements that are beyond transparency, for example whether the company offers a lead free module.”
The “Sunny,” “partly Cloudy” and “Cloudy” designations on the report card refer to the quality of data. “Sunny” scores are verified by third parties and “Cloudy” scores are the least reliable.
Four of the leaders were among the twelve companies that reported that their PV modules contain cadmium or lead below regulatory thresholds set by the European Union, the world’s most stringent standard
All the “leaders” had information about PV recycling on their website, and so did 19 of the others. Most companies have logos or links to PV Cycle for European customers. Only one PV manufacturer (First Solar) explains to all customers how to recycle end-of-life PV modules. Most PV modules sold in Europe are covered by a pre-funded Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme to ensure safe and responsible disposal. This does not exist in the US, but Trina, Yingli, and Up Solar have all written letters to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) requesting this. Eleven other companies have said they would support an EPR scheme is the US.
The Biodiversity category usually applies to manufacturers who site projects on Bureau of Land Management lands in the California desert.
“Companies that didn’t score well in that category typically had to get an incidental take permit from fish & wildlife to harm or injure a threatened or endangered species on their project site,” explained Mulvaney.
First Solar, whose marks are “above average” overall, was the only company to receive a “0” in this category. The dust on one of their projects was so bad that construction had to stop for a couple of months.
Two of the leaders also received less than top marks. SolarWorld was given a 2. SunPower’s Biodiversity marks went up to 4 because it encourages the use of degraded lands for solar power plants instead of important habitat.
“We are trying to encourage companies that want to site projects in sunny places like the California desert to do so on disturbed or degraded lands,” said Mulvaney. “There are plenty of degraded lands in the desert. Right now we see solar plants going onto intact habitat.”
“SVTC advocates for distributed solar in urban areas,” said Davis. “We’d rather see solar on homes and businesses versis big solar farms out n the middle of nowhere.”
“Like local food, local energy,” Mulvaney added.
Trina, Yingli and REC were the only companies to receive perfect marks for “worker rights, health and safety.”
“That’s one of the harder categories for us to score because we don’t have access to the workers themselves,” said Mulvaney. “We’re looking for:
• workers codes to protect health and safety,
• commitment to improving employees wages,
• posting signage for minimum wages provisions
• recordable incidents rates”
A dozen companies are inquiring into the origins of their materials, to ensure they do not come from areas where they finance conflicts.
Companies with low marks did not respond and have very little information about their environmental practices on their websites and or made available to the public.
“They are not interested in communicating with us or the public, and we think this is a problem,” said Davis.
“The more transparency there is on this issue, the more likely it is that companies will be able to compete to reduce their emissions per PV module,” added Mulvaney.
SVTC’s origins go back to the high tech manufacturing sector in the Silicon Valley in 1982. A coalition of high-tech workers, community members, law enforcement, emergency workers, and environmentalists was founded after toxic chemicals were found in the local groundwater. They helped create the nation’s first legislation for the monitoring of underground chemical storage tanks.
“When solar came along we realized it had many of the same environmental technology and impact as electronics,” said Davis. “We thought it was a great opportunity to get in at the ground floor and decided to get in early and influence different solar companies environmental practices and to get them to incorporate sustainable programs.”
“It has evolved quite a bit,” said Davis. “The first two years we scored companies based on their survey responses. We sent out surveys globally, to most of the companies that were in production. The last three years we’ve scored companies according to the survey in addition to information on their website and other information that is publicly available.”
This kind of information was not as readily available in 2009.
There are still very different standards for emissions and who companies report to, in Europe, Asia and the US.
SVTC hopes to bring the green label system to solar.
“We feel very strongly that there should be a uniform standard for measuring emissions,” said Davis.
“Although the solar market has expanded sixfold since 2009, the market share of companies committed to reporting environmental practices has declined,” she added. “The rise of ‘white box’ solar manufacturers has the potential to drive a race to the bottom. SVTC is concerned that companies who offer cheap products and hide their environmental footprint may be rewarded by the market.”
Images Above, in descending order:
- Solar Scorecard 2014 – Courtesy SVTC
- SolarWorld – Solar Recycling- Belgische Module (taken in 2009) – Courtesy Spot Us, CC By SA, 2.0
- An Illustration of a solar project can damage desert habitat. Note all the vegetation is gone from the lower photo – from Alicia Previn’s book, The Strange Disappearance of Walter Tortoise.
- Photo from SVTC history page – Courtesy SVTC
- Cover of “Towards a Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry” (2009) – Courtesy SVTC