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Booming Solar Industry Failing to Report on Internal Sustainability

Only seven companies representing just a quarter of the total photovoltaic (PV) module market share responded to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition’s (SVTC) Fifth Annual 2014 Solar Scorecard, which ranks manufacturers of solar (PV) modules according to a range of environmental, sustainability and social justice factors.

The solar PV industry has seen rapid growth in recent years, particularly in the contract manufacturing segment, which now accounts for more than 25 percent of the global PV supply. However, the industry suffers from several sustainability issues, particularly those related to electronic waste. The lack of responsiveness to SVTC’s survey suggests many of these companies are hoping the public will not notice their internal sustainability problems as they attempt to come out on top in an ever-competitive market.

“Although the solar market has expanded six-fold since 2009, the market share of companies committed to reporting environmental practices has declined,” said Sheila Davis, executive director of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. “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.”

Trina, SunPower and Yingli earned the top scores in 2014. SolarWorld and REC remain among the top tier of industry environmental leaders. SVTC recognized two companies — SolarWorld and Yingli — for responding to the Solar Scorecard survey every year since 2010, demonstrating a consistent commitment to environmental stewardship despite significant disruptions in the solar industry. In addition to this recognition, SolarWorld has achieved the highest overall score across all five Solar Scorecards to date.

Ten PV manufacturers of the 37 scored by SVTC post annual hazardous chemical reduction targets on their websites or in sustainability reports, according the the scorecard. Four PV manufacturers (SolarWorld, Yingli, REC and Sharp) conduct extensive chemical emissions disclosure and reporting. Thirteen companies reported one or more categories of emissions (hazardous waste, heavy metals, air pollution, ozone depleting substances, landfill disposal).

Zero companies provided documentation to verify that their supply chains do not contain conflict minerals based on the due diligence guidelines set by the OECD. Twelve are engaged in or have started the process of due diligence to determine if conflict minerals are present in their supply chains.

“It’s critically important for companies to collect and report chemical use and emissions data,” said Assistant Professor Dustin Mulvaney of San Jose State University, SVTC’s science advisor. “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.”

SVTC plans to use the Solar Scorecard as the basis for a new environmental leadership standard for solar PV modules. The organization will partner with renewable energy and green procurement leaders, as well as the nonprofit Green Electronic Council (GEC), to expand the Scorecard into a standard that meets the criteria of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Waste from electronics continues to be an issue in the solar industry and beyond. One innovative solution that could help reduce e-waste comes from BlueOak Resources, a Burlingame, Calif.-based startup that aims to convert e-waste into a sustainable source of critical metals and rare earths. The company recently chose e-waste-recovery specialist Tetronics to provide plasma-refining technology for the recovery of precious metals from e-waste, first in a plant located in Osceola, Arkansas.


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