Were Your Solar Panels Made With Conflict Minerals?

A new report rates solar manufacturers on the environmental and social impact of their products.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Nov 11, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

So you just put solar panels on your roof and can pat yourself on the back for doing the clean, green thing, right?

Not quite.

While solar panels generate carbon-free electricity, they carry environmental footprints of their own. Manufacturing those products consumes energy and water and emits greenhouse gases. And panels can contain toxic materials or rare-earth elements mined in war-torn countries—so-called conflict minerals.

Solar panels don’t come with disclosure labels, but the next best thing may be the annual Solar Scorecard, which was released Tuesday by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Since 2009, the nonprofit group has surveyed solar panel companies about their manufacturing processes, scoring them on everything from worker safety and the toxicity of their products to their recycling policies and impact on wildlife.

Inside The Business of Organics

Two Chinese companies—Trina Solar and Yingli—and an American manufacturer, SunPower, were the highest-rated solar panel makers, scoring 92, 81, and 88, respectively, out of 100 possible points.

At the bottom of the barrel, companies that scored below 10 included Jinko Solar, Hyundai, and Suniva.

The list is hardly comprehensive. Only 25 percent of companies contacted responded to the survey, down from 51 percent in 2012.

“We've seen some remarkable changes since 2009, especially among the relatively small group of leading companies who have embraced environmental sustainability as a competitive issues,” Sheila Davis, SVTC’s executive director, said in an email. “However, it is difficult to say if the industry is ‘green’ or getting 'greener, when 75 percent of the solar market is not regularly reporting basic environmental information.”

STVC attributed that partly to consolidation of the solar industry but also to the rise of so-called white box manufacturers that make cheap solar panels that are branded with other companies’ names.

Some scores are based on the transparency of the companies’ polices rather than on their actions.

The conflict-minerals issue is a case in point. Some solar panels are made with rare metals mined in African countries by terrorist and rebel groups that sell the materials to finance war efforts.

Companies can earn points on the Solar Scorecard by providing documentation that they do not use conflict minerals or by showing they have started to the process to ensure that they don’t.

Not one solar company provided documentation to prove that they had not obtained conflict minerals from their suppliers, according to the SVTC report. Twelve manufacturers had started the process of verifying that their products did not contain conflict minerals.

“The solar industry currently enjoys ‘green branding’ but needs to be more vigilance about industry wide transparency and monitoring of supply chains, workers health and safety, chemical emissions and waste recycling,” Davis said. “If the solar industry continues to neglect these environmental and health issues they will damage their green branding and lose public trust.’