Using Recycled Water, Recycled Panels Among Best Practices of Solar Companies

A report released today highlights the best practices of solar PV manufacturers to protect workers and the environment during the production of solar panels.

The report lays out the main challenges and the steps solar industry leaders have taken to reduce the environmental impacts of their products, and encourages the rest of the industry to follow suit.

It also analyzes investor considerations regarding environmental, social, and governance practices for responsible management of PV companies.

Interesting that the report comes out just days after the trade group, Solar Energy Industries Association, introduced a document that encourages the solar industry to implement environmental and social responsibility standards.

Clean & Green: Best Practices in Photovoltaics is produced by the nonprofit As You Sow, known for its shareholder advocacy on sustainability.

The report was compiled from a survey of over 100 solar manufacturers around the world, and best practices were determined via consultation with scientists, engineers, academics, government labs, and industry consultants.

While solar electricity produces no emissions once installed, toxic chemicals are used during production as well as lots of water.

Last year, there were protests in China when Jinko Solar dumped hazardous waste into a river.

Many PV manufacturers have beat standards they set for emissions, are reducing water use and reusing water. Several companies are using safer materials, relying on renewable energy to power energy-intensive processes, reducing waste by developing recycling programs that recover materials for reuse, and improving relations with workers and communities throughout their supply chains. 

"Even though there are toxic compounds used in the manufacturing of many solar panels, the generation of electricity from solar energy is much safer to both the environment and workers than production of electricity from coal, natural gas, or nuclear," says report author Amy Galland, PhD, As You Sow Research Director. 

"For example, once a solar panel is installed, it generates electricity with no emissions of any kind for decades, whereas coal-fired power plants in the U.S. emitted nearly two billion tons of carbon dioxide and millions of tons of toxic compounds in 2010 alone."

Best Solar Industry Practices include:

  • Implementing worker safety and public health protocols. First Solar has a lab at each manufacturing facility to monitor treated water and ensure outflows are safe.
  • Reducing water use. Between 2006-2010, Suntech reduced water use by 51% per megawatt by recycling discharged water and supplying it to its HVAC systems. SunPower, Suntech, and Trina Solar all clean and reuse water.
  • Implementing producer responsibility programs. First Solar has a prefunded collection and recycling program that enables up to 95% of the semiconductor material to be reused in new modules. Abound Solar has a cradle-to-cradle program to reclaim hazardous compounds.
  • Considering environmental and social criteria when selecting suppliers. Companies require their suppliers to implement environmental management systems and meet their standards for treatment of workers.
  • Ensuring a system for audits that contain transparent criteria, corrective actions, and regular auditing cycles. REC, SunPower, Suntech, and United Solar Ovonic incorporate each of these into their auditing programs.
  • Publishing corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports. SunPower, Suntech, and Trina Solar publish CSR reports and SolarWorld and Q-Cells publish integrated reports.
  • Using recycled and recyclable materials. One company’s panels are made from 85% recycled material and are themselves 100% recyclable and non-toxic, and Suntech uses easily recyclable materials.
  • Linking executive compensation to environmental or safety metrics. Compensation for executives at SunPower is tied to environmental health and safety performance.

With the right policy measures in place, solar energy can supply more than two-thirds of the total electricity needs of the U.S. by 2050.

Right now, however, funding for fossil energy research is five times that of solar PV research and fossil fuels get significant,  on-going support in the form of subsidies and tax incentives not available to technology for renewable generation sources.

As You Sow recently filed shareholder resolutions challenging 18 oil and gas companies on climate and fracking risks.

Here’s the report:

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