Image credit: Solarcentury (Creative Commons)
Solar panel manufacturing has some toxic byproducts, yet more and more people are interested in solar as a clean(er) alternative to fossil fuel dependence. With renewable feed-in tariffs driving massive solar sales in the UK, one watchdog group has set out to find out which solar panels offer the consumer the cleanest conscience, alongside their clean energy. Writing over at the Guardian, Simon Birch of Ethical Consumer Magazine explains how his organization ranked leading solar manufacturers based on three criteria—controversial activities, toxic pollution, and worker protection.
Of the three issues, the first is probably the most difficult and contentious to define. From BP's culpability in the Gulf oil spill, to Mitsubishi's involvement in the arms industry, Ethical Consumer marked down various companies for activities that they felt their readers would not want to support or be associated with. (No need to ask where they stand on whether morality matters in saving the planet.)
They also looked at issues related to toxic pollution and waste, marking down one (unspecified, in the article at least) company for buying from Luoyang Zhonggui High Technology, a Chinese company that has been accused of dumping toxic waste outside its solar factory.
Finally, they looked at labor issues and workplace safety—with pretty disappointing results. Given the toxicity of some of the materials involved in PV manufacture, ensuring the health and safety of workers should be a top priority. Nevertheless, according to Birch, virtually every company they surveyed received a bottom rating for their supply chain policy. The only notable exception was the Chinese company Yingli, which scored a middle rating because it is adopting an internationally recognized management system for protecting workers' rights, the SA8000.
The original survey of solar companies is behind a pay-wall, so it's hard to evaluate the reports findings or methodology in detail. It's certainly good to see more information out there, not just about the performance and potential of solar, but on the relative ethical merits of different manufacturers. Like any product or technology, it's vital that we ethically minded consumers keep pushing for positive change. Of course, exactly what that "positive change" looks like will vary from consumer to consumer. While some folks may not want to go anywhere near a company involved in the arms trade, others will see defense and military spending as a totally legitimate industry—and may even be delighted to see these sectors moving toward greener tech. (The US Airforce efforts to develop algae biofuels are a classic case in point.)