Solar PV Panels


Ethical shopping guide to Solar PV panels, from Ethical Consumer.

Ethical shopping guide to Solar PV panels, from Ethical Consumer.


This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

 

A green sector reluctant to shed a light on its more shadowy sides


The report includes:

  • Ethical and environmental ratings for 17 solar PV panels
  • Best Buy recommendations
  • Feed-in-tariffs
  • Conflict minerals
  • Pollution & Toxics

 

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Our ratings are live updated scores from our primary research database. They are based on primary and secondary research across 23 categories - 17 negative categories and 6 positive ones (Company Ethos and Product Sustainability). Find out more about our ethical ratings

 

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Last updated: June 2017 

 

 

 

Solar PV Panels

 

 

Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels have long held the promise of harnessing solar energy to replace our reliance on fossil fuels.

In recent years, this promise appeared to have been starting to materialise. Residential and commercial installations of new solar panels in the UK grew rapidly between 2008 and 2016.

According to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, installed capacity soared from 22 MW in 2008 to more than 1,700 MW in 2012, and from there to more than 11,000 MW in 2016.

 

Image: Solar Panels

 

Despite this rapid growth, however, solar energy is still a very small percentage of the total energy production in the UK and its future depends on policy decisions and consumer choices.

 

 

Feed-in-tariffs slashed

 

Feed-in-tariffs (FIT), i.e. the amount of cash guaranteed to householders who install solar panels or wind turbines, were reduced by 65% in January 2016 and the payments have since been further decreasing every three months. For April to June 2017, the FIT is 4.14p per kWh. The FIT reduction reversed the upward trend in the sector: The number of new solar installations in the UK has decreased and a number of companies have exited the market.

However, it would be wrong for consumers to conclude that the reduction of FIT means that solar panels do not make financial sense without consideration of their individual circumstances. The initial FIT rates allowed solar panels to be marketed as a revenue generation investment – a way to make money above the initial investment – and the reduction in FIT rates has certainly increased the investment payback time considerably.

On the other hand, the price of solar panels has reduced dramatically and new cost-reducing technologies, such as mini-inverters which allow more efficient placing of panels on roofs, are now available.

Further, the actual return of solar panels depends on a set of variables: future inflation (as the FIT is index-linked), interest rates, electricity prices, and household electricity consumption patterns. When combined with plug-in cars and electric bikes, the benefits of household electricity generation may increase depending on the cost of fuel replaced. Installing solar panels is now a more complex decision for consumers but is not one to be dismissed.

See government feed-in-tariff scheme on government website for more information. 

 

 

Green to the core?

 

When it comes to their energy and carbon ‘payback’ time, solar panels are an uncontroversially green technology. It is the case that their industrial, mass manufacture requires large amounts of energy and generates greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is widely agreed that when put into operation, solar panels quickly produce more energy than the amount taken up in their manufacture.

Moreover, to the extent that solar panels replace carbon-releasing energy sources such as oil and gas, the resultant carbon savings quickly compensate for the greenhouse gases released in their manufacture and transport.

This is the case even when the solar panels are manufactured in countries where energy production is carbon intensive (e.g. China) and installed in countries where energy production is less carbon intensive (e.g. Germany). Furthermore, experts claim that the energy taken up for solar panel production is less than that required for the operation of coal-fuelled power stations.

On the other hand, solar panels can be thought of as a sub-sector of the global electronics industry. This means that questions must be considered about the extraction and use of non-renewable resources such as metals and minerals, about the use and release of polluting and toxic substances and about the rights and treatment of employees in distant supply chains.

 

 

The companies in this guide

 

Of the literally thousands of companies whose products are available in the UK, our guide rates a selection which are amongst the largest solar panel manufacturers in the world on the basis of their production output. It also includes GB-Sol, SolarWorld and Solarcentury, which got the highest scores when we last looked into solar panels in 2010. 

All the companies on the table are, at the time of writing, registered with the Microgeneration Certification Scheme. MCS-certified products are the only ones eligible for the Government’s financial incentives, including feed-in tariffs.

Solarcentury is currently the supplier of the residential solar panels sold by IKEA in the UK. SunSolar Energy, a UK-based company, went into insolvency in February 2017. It is included in this guide as it is likely that its stock is still available through UK suppliers, and also to highlight the turmoil in the sector following the reduction of residential and commercial subsidies.

Reading this guide, it is important to keep in mind that consumers cannot typically buy solar panels directly from the manufacturing companies themselves. Instead, it is solar panel installation companies that offer solar panel selection, mounting, installation, maintenance and recycling services. It is up to the house owners to negotiate with these companies the detailed specifications appropriate for their requirements, including the company which produced the panels.

 


 

 

Use of non-renewable resources

 

Although technologies of solar energy vary, solar panels contain a range of minerals which are obtained through extractive mining. An expanding electronics industry requires an expanding supply of common and rare minerals.

The mining industry worldwide has attracted notoriety for environmentally destructive activities and for putting the health of miners and their communities at risk. Commercially available solar panels are made out of silicon-based materials with the commonest form of available raw silica being quartz. Other minerals that can be found in solar modules are: copper, silver, cadmium, gold, tantalum, tungsten and tin.

 

 

Conflict minerals policies

 

Of the minerals mentioned above, gold, tantalum, tungsten and tin are classified as conflict minerals; a topic widely covered by Ethical Consumer - see our feature on conflict minerals in our special report into the Electronics Industry. Companies in our guides are marked down in the Habitats & Resources and Human Rights categories for inadequate policies to address conflict minerals.

Sadly, all of the companies in this guide, with the exception of Kyocera and Sharp, received a worst rating for their conflict mineral policies. Many of the companies – Hanwha, JA Solar, Solarcentury, SolarWorld, SunSolar, Suntech, Tata Power Solar and Vikram Solar – do not communicate publicly any information about their stance on the issue.

Companies listed on US stock exchanges, like Yingli Solar, Canadian Solar, ReneSola and Trina Solar, report under the requirements of the Dodd-Frank Act. However, their conflict mineral policies were deemed to be inadequate given the scale of human rights abuses and the environmental destruction associated with mining conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighbouring countries. 

For example, Canadian Solar and ReneSola state that although their products contain tin (Canadian Solar), and tin and tungsten (ReneSola), they have no reason to believe that the minerals may have originated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or an adjoining country. Ethical Consumer does not consider this to be an adequate response or one which exonerates the companies from their responsibly to adopt robust policies.

Kyocera and Sharp received a middle rating for their conflict minerals policies. This was due to their commitment to conflict-free sourcing without withdrawing from the DRC region, conforming to OECD due diligence guidelines and to their participation in the Responsible Minerals Trade Working Group of the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (JEITA).

Sharp stated that it required its suppliers to source from smelters determined to be conflict-free under the Conflict-Free Smelter Program (CFSP), which was established by the Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative (CFSI). Kyocera stated that it had a system of engaging with suppliers which involved using the Conflict Minerals Reporting Template (CMRT), also by the CFSI. However, neither of them published lists of the smelters in their supply chains.

 


 

 

Score table highlights

 

Pollution & Toxics

 

The manufacturing of solar panels can, depending on the technology employed, entail the use and release of a range of polluting and toxic chemicals, such as strong acids or substances that release acids when disposed of in inappropriate ways.

Ethical Consumer considered that a good policy on this matter must at least include: a) a list of hazardous and polluting chemicals, b) clear and dated targets to eliminate discharge of all hazardous and polluting chemicals, c) the requirement that suppliers disclose information on the release of hazardous chemicals, d) the public disclosure of information on polluting and hazardous substances, and e) a discussion on the company’s progress in finding alternatives.

With the exception of Canadian Solar, Jinko Solar and Kyocera, all the companies in this guide receive a worst rating. Canadian Solar, Jinko Solar and Kyocera received a middle rating on their strength of their reporting. Canadian Solar, in a very rare and commendable initiative, reported on the emissions of its manufacturing sites in China and the three biggest suppliers of each of its manufacturing sites. Kyocera reported on its efforts to reduce volatile organic compounds and halogen-elements in certain of its products. However, none of the companies communicated clear and dated targets for reducing or eliminating the substances identified in their reporting.

 

 

The 2015 Solar Scorecard 

 

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) is a US-based NGO aiming to promote human health and environmental justice in response to the rapid growth of the high-tech industry. They produced a ranking of solar panel manufacturers across a range of categories, titled the 2015 Solar Scorecard, aiming to put pressure on companies to make solar panels safer for the environment and for workers.

Three of their categories are directly relevant to the issues of pollution and toxics: emissions transparency, chemical reductions and module toxicity.

In the emissions transparency category, companies were awarded points for reporting: chemical emissions; air pollutants; emissions of ozone depleting substances and information regarding landfill disposal. The ‘chemical reduction plan’ category awarded companies points for having adopted a plan to reduce chemical use per module, while the ‘module toxicity’ category checked for compliance with EU regulations regarding the use of toxic substances such as lead and cadmium.

The table below (ranked alphabetically) shows how the companies included in the Solar Scorecard fared.

 

Table: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

 

 

Environmental reporting and supply chain management
 

In general, there is a stark contrast between environmental reporting and reporting on supply chain policies and arrangements in the sector. Many solar PV manufacturers offer lengthy environmental reports, but when it comes to their supply chain management, they divulge very little information.

Operating in a ‘green’ sector, companies appear keen to demonstrate ‘green’ credentials. But with regard to workers’ rights in their supply chains, they appear much less concerned about building their reputation.

 

 

Company ethos

 

The companies in this guide whose sole products are solar panels and other renewable energy technologies were awarded a positive Company Ethos star. 

 

 

Controversial activities 

 

Other companies, however, are directly involved in unethical and destructive industry sectors.

The Hanwha Group is a weapons manufacturer and a supplier of a range of weapons and equipment to the South Korean military. The Mitsubishi and Tata Groups are suppliers to the defence industry and the military. 

Mitsubishi also produces and sells nuclear fuel for energy generation. 

 


 

 

End-of-life and recycling

 

Since 2014, solar PV modules have been included in the European Union WEEE requirements, according to which industries are required to take financial responsibility for the environmental impact of their products when they become waste.

Producers, distributors, importers and installers of solar panels are required to register with industry-managed and funded take-back and recycling schemes, ensuring the appropriate collection, disposal and recycling of solar panels. The most common take-back scheme in the UK is PV Cycle. Reputable installers will provide information to consumers on recycling.

 


 

 

Top Tips for Choosing Solar Panels

 

Jonathan Atkinson is Project Manager at the Carbon Co-op, a co-operative of householders in Greater Manchester collaborating on improving the environmental performance and thermal comfort of their properties. 


He had the following advice to offer when choosing solar panels:

  • Understand your energy needs. It typically makes more environmental and financial sense to reduce your energy use through different kinds of house insulation, the use of energy-efficient appliances and heating systems, and small behavioural changes, before considering the installation of solar panels. House energy monitors may be useful here.
  • Look for quality solar panels. This means panels that produce more power per surface unit (performance) and that sustain this performance over time. Solar panels age naturally and their performance reduces but the speed at which it does so varies quite a lot.
  • It is very important to identify a reliable contractor who will handle the installation but it is equally important that you are clear on what you want out of your solar panels. Specify your requirements clearly.
  • If you decide to install solar panels, and you are interested in reducing your carbon footprint further, consider the financial and environmental benefits of electric cars and electric bikes.
  • Feed-in-tariffs were reduced last year. However, this should not stop you from considering solar panels as the price of solar panels has come down dramatically. Having said that, the level of the new feed-in-tariffs means that the payback time of the initial investment has increased considerably. Also, it means that many solar panel installers are facing financial difficulties because the market has quietened down. It is important to make background checks on the financial health of the installer before you make any payments.

 

 

Experience of a home owner

 

Dominic McCann, a member of the Carbon Co-op, had solar panels installed on his roof two and a half years ago as part of a whole-house retro-fit. He told Ethical Consumer that his experience of having solar panels has been very positive and that he would recommend them to other people.

 

Image: Solar

 

Aside from the undeniable financial benefits, the panels have made him and his family more aware of how and when they use electricity. They now monitor the electricity generated from the sun and they have adapted their energy use – e.g. putting on the washing machine – to the electricity generation patterns.

Dominic recently bought a plug-in hybrid car to replace a 15-year old diesel car. For short city drives, such as taking his children to football, he has found that a fully charged car battery is sufficient. On clear summer days, the solar panels can provide enough power to keep the car battery re-charging without relying on energy from the grid.

 

 

 

 

Company behind the brand
 

Tata Power Solar is part of the Tata Group, an India-based industrial conglomerate that spans the sectors of agriculture, steel production, car manufacturing, oil and gas exploration and energy generation. Its activities have attracted severe criticisms for their impact on the environment, communities and workers.

According to AccountabiliTea.org, the company part-owns Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL) which is reportedly the second largest tea producer in Assam, India, and employs 30,000 workers.

Three local NGOs filed a complaint in 2013 with the World Bank’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) – the independent grievance office which holds the World Bank Group accountable to its own policies. It had invested in APPL through its International Finance Corporation. The NGOs were responding to reports from workers on violations of wage and labour laws, restrictions on freedom of association, poor hygiene and health, and hazardous conditions for pesticide sprayers.

After a three-year investigation, the CAO’s report was released in November 2016. It found that, despite a share programme meant to increase worker profits, workers suffered from low wages, poor working conditions and inadequate living quarters, and struggled to access basic healthcare. Additionally, the report found that workers handled hazardous pesticides without proper training or equipment, conditions which had led to the sudden death of at least one employee.

 

 

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