The Panels Are Transparent But the Practices Are Not

Photo by Phil Champion. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Phil Champion. Some rights reserved.

The solar power industry gets a lot of love for being a sustainable, creative, efficient alternative energy source – and rightly so. Once the manufacturing of the panels is complete, the upkeep is relatively cheap and the things are built to endure the weather and last a long time (save for the occasional defective panel). But what about the manufacturing process? The idea that solar panels are being mass produced using only sustainable energy and materials is a paradisal paradox and, sadly, too good to be true (the solar industry is an industry, after all).

Yes, the crafting of these solar panels often involves toxic materials and unstable gases, and the process with which they are made is not getting any cleaner. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a group that oversees environmental conditions involved in manufacturing solar panels, publishes an annual “solar scorecard” which ranks solar manufacturing companies based on factors like emissions transparency, use of conflict minerals, C2C recycling, etc. This year’s scorecard was published last week, and based on their criteria, it looks link Trina, Yingli, and Sunpower came in on top, with scores of 77, 75, and 69 respectively (out of 100, presumably). Seven companies tied for last place (with a score of 5), including manufacturing giant Westinghouse.

Mother Jones points out, however, that transparency has  become a huge issue in this arena. Apparently only 35% of the industry responded to the SVTC survey, compared to last year’s 51%, and many of the companies gave very little to no useful information about their business practices. As SVTC executive director Sheila Davis points out, “If they are not providing the information, we have to assume the worst.” But with crude oil prices on a steep rise again, the solar industry seems primed for rapid expansion, and these are the kinds of kinks that should probably be worked out before the next big solar boom.

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