Fast Company

The Solar Industry Responds to Claims of Supply-Chain Dirtiness

After we wrote about how many solar panel makers fared badly on The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's 2011 Solar Scorecard, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) nearly fell over itself to respond, telling us that the solar industry is cleaning up its act--and fast.

The scorecard--which rates solar providers on the cleanliness of their supply chains (i.e. recycling and use of toxic materials--received responses from just 46% of the photovoltaic industry market, perhaps in part because there is no green supply-chain standard for the industry, and companies are reluctant to expose their unregulated practices.

Just wait till next year, begs the SEIA. The industry association is rolling out a solar code of conduct later this year for companies that will have certain standards for solar module collection and recycling, extended producer responsibility (manufacturers of these materials have to implement systems for takeback and recycling), supply chain management (making sure business partners are handling materials appropriately from manufacture through recycling), and strict worker and fire-safety codes. So, the 2012 scorecard should have a much higher response rate and higher scores.

Even now, the SEIA says that the industry isn't as bad as the Solar Scorecard implies. Many companies--especially startups--still don't have takeback or recycling programs, but this won't be a problem for at least a decade since most solar panels last up to 25 years. That sounds eerily familiar to what an oil company might say about switching to renewables (we still have plenty of oil for now!), but it has the added benefit of being true. Check out the chart below for proof:

So, they have a few years to get this stuff together. And as for those complaints in the scorecard about companies using toxic lead and cadmium in their supply chains? It's a problem, but one that will hopefully be cleaned up by the solar code of conduct. "Right now the volume is so low compared to other electronic materials, but yes, it's a concern because this industry is about solving environmental problems, not creating new ones," admits Monique Hanis, the SEIA's communications director, stating a hugely obvious fact. Saying that solar panel pollution isn't a problem because there aren't that many solar panels doesn't shine a flattering light on the ambitions of the industry.

So the SEIA is aware that there is a problem, and it has plans to fix it before everyone starts tossing their toxic solar panels into landfills. There's little to complain about here--besides the existential problem that solar panels could possibly be bad for the environment. Provided, of course, that the solar code of conduct is up to snuff--we all know industries tend to be less than-tringent at regulating themselves.

[Photo by Shehal on Flickr]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

Add New Comment


  • Michael Rorman

    Ever heard "the more things change the more they stay the same"?
    Solar isn’t what it is hyped up to be. It is too expensive, too little too late, too intrusive, and now it looks as though it is right in lock-step with the other industries that are not living up to their environmental responsibilities. We should go with what we have until so called 'alternative energy solutions' are more closely perfected. Falling into the mass hysteria of global climate change is short changing our future.
    I hear the drum beat of marketing taking precedence over real responsibility - again.

  • Sheila Davis

    I am glad that SIEA responded to Fast Company’s reports on the Solar Scorecard. Silicon Valley Toxics sought SEIA 's support in getting their members to participate in the survey. Unfortunately, we recieved very little response. We are still waiting to hear from SIEA on how we can assist in their efforts. However, SIEA’s projections on when solar panels will be removed is misinformed. Recyclers, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, are already receiving significant volumes of solar panels as a result of breakage (during transportation), defects and post industrial waste. If the solar industry is truly green and sustainable they will build recycling programs into their business practices and not wait 10 years.