Solar PV Panels
Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels have long been central to many serious visions of a sustainable future and Ethical Consumer published its first buyers’ guide to them in 1991. Jo Southall reviews the sector in the light of new feed-in tariff subsidies.
Which brands to cover?
To cut down the solar PV list to a manageable size, we asked a trade association, the Micropower Council, to recommend which of the 34 companies on the Microgeneration Certification Scheme’s website were most relevant to cover for individual consumers.
We did not cover ‘solar inverters’ in this report. They are an important bit of kit that converts the DC current that the panel generates to AC current that the home/grid can use, and which all installations will need.
Company ethical issues
There are three key issues to consider when looking at the ethical performance of solar photovoltaic (PV) panel manufacturers: controversial activities, toxics in manufacture and disposal, and workers’ rights in production supply chains.
Because the panel subsidies are not available for DIY installations you are unlikely to buy direct from any of the companies on the table. As the customer though you will be able to specify in most cases the product you want, and we have covered the issue of installation under Practical Issues below. More information about the feed-in tariff itself appears in the Solar PV and Wind Turbines pdf which also includes information on the Renewable Heat Initiative.
Unlike the wind turbine manufacturers which are mainly small specialist companies, PV manufacturers include some of the biggest companies in the world. BP’s reputation, following the huge Gulf of Mexico pollution incident, appears beyond redemption, and its solar panel offerings are unlikely to capture the attention of many ethical shoppers.
Less well known will be some of the military interests of other PV suppliers, such as Mitsubishi Electric’s supply of missile systems and satellites. See Company Profiles below.
PV panels involve the same manufacturing processes as other electronics products and, as such, are complex and potentially damaging. For example, Chinese company Luoyang Zhonggui High Technology, which makes polysilicon for solar panels, was discovered dumping highly toxic waste onto land just outside its factory in 2008.(1) The company was reported to be a supplier of Suntech – a company in this report.
Fortunately the excellent US campaign group Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has become involved. It produced a detailed report in 2009 called ‘Towards a Just and Sustainable Solar Industry’ which shares an enthusiasm for the key role the technology will play in de-carbonising global energy systems, with a profound desire to make manufacturers fully accountable for their social and environmental impacts. A spin-off of the report is a new website www.solarscorecard.com which plans an annual rating of solar manufacturers against key issues including: recycling, supply chain monitoring, chemical use and disclosure. The crossover with our own report was not large but the table below shows how the German company SolarWorld and the Chinese company Yingli stood out as relatively good performers.
Solar panels can become toxic waste at the end of their working lives if they are not properly recycled. In the EU, solar panels are currently exempt from the WEEE regulations requiring manufacturers to take back all equipment at the end of its life. This is partly because the EU was convinced that the manufacturers own voluntary take-back scheme, PV Cycle, is effective.(2)
Two of the companies on the table were not listed as members in July 2010: GB-Sol and Romag. GB-Sol, the only smaller company in this report, tells us it intends to join the scheme in the medium term.
Supply Chain Policies
Given the toxic chemicals involved in PV manufacture, it is particularly important in this sector that formal policies exist to check that risks are not being taken with workers’ health. Perhaps unsurprisingly our research found little in the way of reassurance from the bulk of the companies involved. Even where policies existed, they were sometimes insufficient to avoid a worst rating.
Standing out was the Chinese company Yingli whose factory was formally certified to the SA8000 standard for workers’ rights. This standard, one of the best formal global management systems in this area, delivers on all the key areas Ethical Consumer currently requires for a best rating in this category.
The small Welsh company GB-Sol, which does not manufacture its own silicon wafers, was open with us about the suppliers it used. It sources from Europe only and, in case of smaller companies, we treat the avoidance of suppliers from low-wage economies as an effective if not explicit supply chain policy.
Solar Century has spent some time discussing with Ethical Consumer how its buyer uses site visits, self assessment questionnaires and existing audits to check on suppliers and vet potential suppliers. Solar Century has plans to improve its management of labour standards, including commissioning an independent audit.
Not all components factories are in low wage economies where concerns about workers’ rights are usually greatest. Sharp, for example, manufacturers in Wales, the USA and Japan and SolarWorld manufactures in Germany. Both also operate in low wage economies and score worst for supply chain policy.
Other ranking systems
||Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition Solar Scorecard (out of 100)
||Take back my TV Recycling report card (USA) (A-F. A is best)
||Greenpeace guide to greener electronics (out of 10)
BP is accused of land rights abuses including allegations of intimidation and violence,(7) and involvement in Canadian tar sands operations where there were related health concerns for local communities.(8)
Kyocera, Sharp and Sanyo all use coltan (tantalum) in some part of their businesses.(9) This mineral was said to fuel conflict, including mass rape, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.(10,11)
Mitsubishi Electric has supplied various products to the military including: missile systems, communication equipment, radars, satellites, computers.(5)
Romag supplies the Israeli Defence Force and the Singapore Army.(6)
Solar Century was set up by Jeremy Leggett – a one man solar power campaign – who chose the entrepreneurial route after seven years as scientific director of Greenpeace International’s climate change campaign. Solar Century manufactures its own-brand products as well as installing Sharp, Yingli, Suntech, Sanyo and Sunpower products. The first four are covered on the table. The Utility company Scottish and Southern and a few specialist green venture capital funds own Solarcentury Preference Shares. Because preferred stock does not normally carry voting rights we haven’t treated this as ‘ownership’ which might otherwise adversely affect Solarcentury’s rating.
Panasonic Corporation formerly known as Matsushita Electric took over 51% of Sanyo Electric in 2009. There have been reports of pollution incidents at a Sanyo Video facility in Tijuana, Mexico and elsewhere.(4) Also contributing to Sanyo’s score is a criticism for failing to speak out about human rights abuses in China whilst being a sponsor of the Olympics that took place there.(12)
Schott is owned by the German company Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung. A subsidiary, Carl Zeiss Optronics GmbH, provided the following military/armaments products: missile guidance, reconnaissance cameras, and sensors and masts.(5) According to the Schott website, searched on 8 July 2010, the company also provided core services to the nuclear industry.
My Solar Array
Sam Kimmins, a sustainability advisor with Forum for the Future, recently had a solar photovoltaic system installed on his 1975 ex-council maisonette in Holloway, London.
I’ve been working in the sustainability advice sector for 15 years, mainly as a consultant to the construction industry so I’ve been relatively familiar with the technology for a while, and always wanted to practice what I preach, by investing in a system of my own.
The whole process was managed through Islington Council’s grant scheme, (administered by Sustain) who arranged all the surveys, scaffolding, planning permission, and installation. This made the whole process extremely smooth and cut out the risk of cowboy installers. The whole process took about four months, although it would have been considerably shorter had it not been for a couple of postponed visits due to the snow. The installation itself took three days and the Southern Solar installers were really friendly and professional.
As for the technical bit, my system is a 2.6kWp (Kilowatt Peak) system, measuring 6.5m by 3.1m – this pretty much fills the entire roof of my little maisonette. The total cost was £13,500 including installation.
So what do I get for this? On a sunny summer day, the panels give me around 17kWh per day - that’s equivalent to a kettle boiling continuously for about six hours. On a dull day it’s considerably less – about 4kWh – but still more than I use.
Since I had the system installed ten weeks ago in May it’s produced just over 840kWh of electricity – about ten times what I’ve used, worth about £370 in feed – in tariff and sales to the grid.
Contrary to the common phenomenon of ‘free’ energy simply resulting in higher usage, I’m now very conscious of how much energy I’m using, as the solar output gives me a concept of an energy ‘budget’. I’ve also become a bit of an energy geek, running down to the meter cupboard whenever the sun goes in/comes out to see what’s happening to the output!
Cost and income
A fully installed grid-connected domestic photovoltaic (PV) system is likely to cost from £4,000 to £8,000 per kilowatt (kW) rated capacity. So a typical 2.5kW PV roof will cost around £15,000.
Maintenance costs are generally low as there are no moving parts, and the panels are expected to operate 30 years or longer. The only major part that will probably require replacement over a system life span is the inverter, which costs £1,000 - £2,000 in a domestic system. Against this you need to factor electricity savings and income from the new feed-in tariff scheme.
A domestic PV system will be particularly financially attractive if you’re undertaking substantial renovation work or building a house from new, as the panels can be used in place of roof tiles, and many associated costs (such as scaffolding) will be incurred when roofing anyway.
A family installs a solar PV array with a maximum output of 2.5 kW on their existing unshaded south-facing roof. The system costs £14,500 – this includes a 25-year warranty extension for the inverter (bear in mind that inverters are unlikely to last 25 years without replacement or repairs). The roof produces around 2,000 kWh of electricity per year. They use 50% of the electricity directly at the time when it is produced and sell the other 50% on to the grid. They can expect to receive:
• Generation tariff 2,000kWh x £0.413/kWh = £826
• Export tariff 1,000kWh x £0.03/kWh = £30
• Electricity savings 1,000kWh x 0.12/kWh = £120
Total annual income £976
The scheme will therefore pay back costs in 15 years and generate income for at least 25 years.
This extract was taken from the excellent Centre for Alternative Technology website.
PV or not PV?
James Page outlines his concerns regarding the effects of some recent criticisms of solar PV and feed-in tariffs.
The UK solar PV business has been brisk of late. Why would anyone turn down a return of 5-8% (tax-free) for an investment in solar panels that provide electricity and help keep the rain off the roof ?
But things got cloudy in March when columnist George Monbiot let rip with an article entitled ‘Are we really going to let ourselves be duped into this solar panel rip-off?’ A vigorous debate ensued with solar entrepreneur and fellow Guardian columnist Jeremy Leggett. But for the benefit of those who might be attracted to solar for reasons other than the financial return, his arguments deserve further analysis. The window of opportunity for the top feed in tariffs (FiTs) is due to end in less than 20 months. Householders, businesses and manufacturers are in serious danger of missing the boat again.
Monbiot’s first criticism is that the economies of scale are lost in domestic PV. In fact PV lends itself admirably to small installations. The panels used are the same as in large systems, and no less efficient. Transmission losses are actually lower.
More importantly there are also behavioural benefits that arise from generating electricity at the domestic level. About half the electricity used by householders will be ‘free’ – once the panels are installed – focussing minds on the high prices being paid for the other half, hence reducing demand. People with apple trees hate buying apples, and readers of the Sunday Times are none too keen to pay for internet access, which was previously free. This consumer pressure to reduce fossil fuel consumption would not occur if PV were deployed in centralised ‘solar farms’ (whether or not controlled by oligopolists like British Gas and npower) and the electricity generated sold at standard market prices.
He then argues that FiTs create no carbon savings since we already have an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in Europe, so other sectors/regions will take up the permits released by savings from PV. This might be true in the short term (provided the ETS is actually working, which hasn’t always been the case.) But that would be a signal for the authorities to reduce the number of permits allotted in the next round, in exactly the same way that any other reductions are taken on board. The ETS is designed to work alongside other energy saving measures without which either nothing changes or the lights start going out on a regular basis.
Conceding that solar panels are the best investment a householder can make, Monbiot says they are wasteful. If he is referring to the admittedly low technical efficiency of converting the energy of light to electricity (14-18%) it’s infinitely better than the black slates on my roof, which just get hot in the sun. Everyone agrees that insulation should come first, and that solar water heating should also be considered, but PV has its place.
Monbiot also accused FiTs of being ‘regressive’ – ‘subsidising the middle-class’. That was perhaps his worst misconception. Already we are seeing councils, such as Ipswich, inviting bids to carpet their housing stock with solar panels. The bidder keeps the income from FiTs, and the residents get free electricity. Whoever has paid for the panels, the electricity will be used and welcomed by the community in years to come. Far from being a financial burden they will in time become a boon to the local economy, helping to keep energy prices low.
FiTs are not the only way. But alternatives such as subsidies worked far too slowly and personal carbon quotas will have to wait for a few more Green Party MPs (despite the support of David Milliband and Conservative Tim Yeo.) FiTs give us a fighting chance to cut carbon while building a renewables industry to match Germany’s.
James Page is an industry policy advisor for the Green Party and Operations Manager at Joju Ltd, an installer of Solar PV.
Avoiding the cowboys
Although our buyers’ guides to solar PV and small wind turbines will help you choose products, you can’t buy them and install them yourself and still qualify for the all-important feed-in tariff payments. To qualify they must be installed by someone approved by the government’s Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS).
In April 2010 Which? put out a press release entitled ‘Solar Panel sellers slammed in Which? probe,’ which accused 10 out of 14 companies of exaggerating potential savings. This, and other more anecdotal stories appearing in the press, can give the impression that the installation industry is awash with unscrupulous players.
The first point to note is that, as we mentioned above, to be eligible for FiTs your panels or turbines must be installed by someone approved by the government’s Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS). Getting MCS certified is not a formality and requires annual audit visits. Companies must be able to create written installation plans and demonstrate knowledge of key issues such as roof loading, water ingress and electrical connection. You can go to the MCS website at www.microgenerationcertification.org and search for a list of certified installers for a particular technology or a particular geographical area or both.
The second point to note is that the Which? survey was specifically looking at solar heating systems installers (not PV). It is much harder to predict the actual performance of solar heating systems than it is for PV panels. PV panels have a stated KWh output in full sun – and they either work or they don’t. Other key data (such as FiT returns) are publicly available, so cowboys should be less of a problem with PV installations.
Nevertheless, the sector is clearly not problem-free. Everest – one of the companies named in the Which? probe is itself on the MCS list (for solar thermal – not PV). And the huge growth in the market caused by the FiT scheme itself is bringing in a large number of new players.
One solution is to use a series of common sense filters. The Centre for Alternative Technology advises getting quotes from more than one installer and looking for feedback about individual installers (either online or by word-of-mouth). Looking at how long a company has been installing microgeneration would also help identify those with a long-term commitment to the technology.
Another solution would be to look for a broader ethical commitment – such as concern for workers’ rights at the manufacturers – on the websites and promotional materials of installers. Two we have found are:
Solar Century, who works with a network of installers around the country, is developing more formal approach to workers’ rights issues.
SolarTwin - an Ethical Consumer Best Buy when we last looked at Solar Thermal (EC95) – has also now started to offer PV installations.
If you know of any others with broader ethical commitments do get in touch.
Installing a particular product
In many cases, installers work with one or two manufacturers which they will ‘recommend’. Obviously at Ethical Consumer we think it is important to keep up the pressure for a wider commitment to social and environmental issues in the industry.
Many MCS installers will ultimately agree to installing any MCS certified product if it means losing the contract if they don’t. And if they don’t want to, there is now sufficient competition for it to be relatively easy to find someone who will.
More information and further reading
Centre for Alternative Technology
Probably know more about this sector than anyone else. They have an excellent website, downloadable factsheets, booklists for further reading and even run 1 - 3 day courses on various renewable energy systems.
The Energy Saving Trust
A government website with lots of information on FiTs and practical tools to get you started.
Microgeneration Certification Scheme
With comprehensive lists of certified products and installers.
The new name for the British Wind Energy Association – with lots of technical data on products and performance for turbine enthusiasts.
1 Washington Post March 9th 2008 Solar Energy Firms Leave Waste Behind in China
2 Environment Committee Changes WEEE directive June 29th 2010 http://www.recycle.co.uk/news/2350000.html
3 email from GB-Sol owner, Bruce Cross, received on 15 July 2010
4 February 2007 Greenpeace report ‘Cutting Edge Contamination’
5 2007 edition of Jane’s International Defence Directory
6 http://www.romag.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=52&Itemid=53 viewed 16/7/10
7 CORE (Corporate Responsibility) Coalition reports:The reality of rights: Barriers to accessing remedies when business operates across borders (May 2009
8 BP plc Corporate Communications:www.bp.com (8 July 2009)
10 Enoughproject.org, Congo’s Conflict Minerals:12 June 2009
11 Raise hope for congo:Conflict minerals (10 July 2010)
12 Human Rights Watch:China: Olympic Flame Turns Up Heat on Sponsors (5 April 2008)