The Solar Industry’s New Dirty Secret

<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/matthijskoster/718659143/sizes/z/in/photolist-26vjjT-26vjEK-5udeNZ-bpaJMq-7YJF8X-7wFJG1-K27E-aJVP4D-4f5C43-bv2V2D-fovTbc-8TtuU6-daxnSV-gsCLP-6QDcTX-eN6bR3-bUhh7j-bUhgjE-7zNZea-d72jms-uXXHd-HCKKw-9GddpR-9Gddpz-3ezce8-8RtDh4-bQZ34p-7qMAay-86GjSd-bYWn2m-56SVcF-bb4ceZ-7dRsp1-7oAUEH-73ZD6R-8Whr6-9ncKiQ-bYWaiU-bYWhaE-dP4Y6h-bYWVk5-7fFkmu-ekzDJH-7oiNUu-5aTKFw-6YAhQT-bQVHjM-7DBXy9-6YAhSF-5nKiGF-bYWmXN/">Matthijs Koster</a>/Flickr

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


It’s no secret that manufacturing solar panels often requires toxic heavy metals, explosive gases, and rare-earth elements that come from shoddy mines in war-torn republics. But here’s a surprise: The solar industry is actually getting dirtier in some respects. The latest Solar Scorecard from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), released last week, reports that the industry has slipped on several key environmental metrics, with many solar-panel manufacturers now refusing to provide any information about their manufacturing practices at all.

In terms of market share, only 35 percent of the solar-panel industry responded to this year’s SVTC survey, compared to 51 percent last year. According to SVTC, several major solar companies have provided almost no meaningful information about their environmental performance—stats such as the toxicity of their panels, the use of conflict minerals, or the sustainability of their supply chains—through reports to the group or on their websites.

“If they are not providing the information, we have to assume the worst,” says SVTC executive director Sheila Davis.

Solar companies that do provide sustainability stats are in some cases scaling back their environmental commitments. This year, Arizona-based First Solar started giving customers in most countries the option of buying its panels without participating in its recycling program, reducing the number of solar companies with mandatory recycling programs in the United States to zero. Also, fewer companies this year told SVTC that they would commit to supporting a program to take back and recycle their used solar panels.

Davis blames the poor scores on a global glut of photovoltaic (PV) panels. Huge Chinese subsidies for solar companies have driven down global PV prices (and helped boost sales) but have forced many companies to cut costs. Some major European- and American-based manufacturers (and a few Chinese ones) that abide by strict environmental standards have lost market share or gone out of business and stopped responding to the surveys. 

The environmental opacity of the PV industry stands in ironic contrast to that of the PC industry, which, after years of pressure from SVTC and other groups, now routinely discloses a wide range of information about the environmental lifecycle of its products.

“My gut feeling is that solar companies need pressure just like the electronics industry does,” Davis says. “They are not going to rise to the top on their own.”

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate