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. 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 (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.
Use the Energy Saving Trust solar energy calculator to estimate how much you could earn using the FIT scheme and selling unused energy back.
More information on the government feed-in-tariff scheme >
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 plus GB-Sol, SolarWorld and Solarcentury which are smaller companies which only make renewable technologies.
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.
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.
Score table highlights
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. Companies 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.
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 list of hazardous and polluting chemicals,
- clear and dated targets to eliminate discharge of all hazardous and polluting chemicals,
- the requirement that suppliers disclose information on the release of hazardous chemicals,
- the public disclosure of information on polluting and hazardous substances, and
- 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.
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.
The companies in this guide whose sole products are solar panels and other renewable energy technologies were awarded a positive Company Ethos star.
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.
The 2016-17 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 8 categories, titled the Solar Scorecard, aiming to put pressure on companies to make solar panels safer for the environment and for workers.
The categories covered:
- Extended Producer Responsibility - global participation in collection and recycling of old panels
- Emissions Reporting - report all emissions
- Worker Rights, Health and Safety - go beyond compliance with local laws and regulations
- Supply Chains - commitment form all suppliers to protect workers and the environment
- Module Toxicity & Materials - elimination of heavy metals
- Energy and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions - report energy use and GHG emissions
- Water - reduces impacts to water
- Conflict minerals - tin does not contain conflict minerals
The table below shows how the companies included in the Solar Scorecard fared. Scores are out of 100 with 100 being the top rating.
N.B the Solar Scorecard did not cover the following companies in our guide: Canadian Solar, GB-Sol, Solarcentury, SunSolar, Tata Solar, Sharp and Vikram Solar.
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.