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Solar PV Panels

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 19 solar panels.

We also look at the cost of solar panels, the supply chain of solar panels, tips for prospective buyers and our recommended buys.

About 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.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying solar panels:

  • Is it made by a company that only produces green technology? Investing in companies that only manufacture environmental alternatives is one way to show your support for renewables over fossil fuels.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying solar panels:

  • Is the company also causing climate chaos? Many leading solar PV companies are also involved in damaging industries like coal and aviation. 

  • Does the company have poor workers’ rights policy? From sourcing raw materials to assembly, solar PV manufacture often takes place in countries with poor regulation. Avoid companies that don’t make up for this in policy. 

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

GB-Sol solar panels

Company Profile: GB-Sol
11.5

Sunshine Solar panels

Company Profile: Sunshine Solar Limited
10

Eco-Worthy

Company Profile: Eco-Worthy Solar Technology Co. Ltd
9

Suntech solar panels

Company Profile: Suntech Deutschland Gmbh
9

JinkoSolar solar panels

Company Profile: JinkoSolar Holding Co., Ltd
8.5

Trina Solar

Company Profile: Trina Solar Co., Ltd
8.5

JA Solar

Company Profile: JA Solar Holdings Co Ltd
8

LG Solar Panels

Company Profile: LG Electronics Inc
8

Yingli solar panels

Company Profile: Yingli Green Energy Holding Company Ltd
8
7.5

Canadian Solar panels

Company Profile: Canadian Solar Inc
7

Sharp solar panels

Company Profile: Sharp Corporation
6.5
6

Vikram Solar Solar Panels

Company Profile: Vikram Solar Limited (Previously Vikram Solar Pvt. Ltd)
5.5

SunPower solar panels

Company Profile: Sunpower Corporation UK Limited
5

Rec Solar solar panels

Company Profile: Rec Solar Holdings AS
4.5

Panasonic Solar Panels

Company Profile: Panasonic Corporation
4

Hyundai solar panels

Company Profile: Hyundai Energy Solutions
2.5

What is most important to you?

Animals
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Product sustainability

Our Analysis

Solar PV technology has advanced massively – there are now panels so light and thin they can rest on a bubble without popping it. Efficiency has shot up, from around 10% just a decade ago, to an average of around 18% for currently installed panels, and costs have plummeted.

There are nearly a million solar PV systems on UK houses, and if we gathered all global panels there would be enough to cover Dubai completely.

Government incentives hugely impact how many installations happen in a year: the slashing of Feed-in Tariffs (FIT) in 2016 triggered a sharp decline. But, although the government support is now limited, PV panels continue to drop in price.

Research group Wood Mackenzie predicts prices will continue to fall, but at a slower rate. Solar-Trade suggests that installations dropped at the start of the pandemic (500 installations in April) but bounced back later in the year (4000 installations in October).

Score table highlights

We chose a selection of well-known solar PV brands, which make a mix of on- and off-grid panels, marketed for sale by UK installers. If you buy an on-grid panel you have access to electricity even if your panel’s not producing energy, as you’re still connected to the utility grid.

Off-grid panels, used on e.g. boats or caravans, are not connected to the grid, so you only get electricity if the sun’s shining or you’re using power stored in batteries. Consumers cannot typically buy on-grid panels directly from manufacturers, so if you want a specific brand contact local installers to see if they can supply it for you.

Usually, second-hand is our first choice, and it’s true that second-hand solar panels are cheaper and can avoid waste. However, it can be a challenge to find panels that meet your specific requirements and if you accidentally buy a damaged panel it could be costly to repair. You should use an accredited installer, even if installing a second-hand panel.

GB-Sol and Sunshine Solar are two small UK-based alternatives in this guide, and Eco-Worthy is included as several people searched for it on our website.

Since our last guide, SolarWorld and SunSolar appear to have filed for insolvency. ReneSola and Tata no longer appear to offer residential panels in the UK. And Solarcentury, which partnered with Ikea, has placed its UK solar panel offerings on hold.

Tax Conduct

Ten (52%) companies in this guide received a worst rating under Tax Conduct, with GB-Sol, Sunshine Solar, Eco-Worthy, Suntech, Kyocera and Vikram being the only companies which did not get marked down for likely use of tax-avoidance strategies.

Solar companies causing climate chaos

Several ‘green’ brands are deeply involved in climate-chaos-causing industries.

Total SE is a French oil and gas multinational and ultimate parent company of the SunPower-Maxeon brand.

Hyundai solar panels are ultimately owned by Korea Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering Co., Ltd which is involved in oil and petrochemicals. Hanwha Corporation’s family tree includes aviation and weapons systems. REC Solar panels are ultimately owned by China National Chemical Corporation.

Brands were awarded a positive Company Ethos mark if they solely produced renewable energy technologies.

These were GB-Sol, Sunshine Solar, Eco-Worthy, Suntech, Trina, JinkoSolar, Canadian Solar, Yingli, and JA Solar.

Even though this is a guide to renewable energy, several companies in this guide received a worst rating under our Climate Change category, and only four received a best – meaning that they report on their carbon emissions and how they are cutting them. The best were GB-Sol, JinkoSolar, Trina Solar, Canadian Solar and Panasonic.

Pollution & toxics

Highly toxic metals are often used to produce photovoltaic units. Silicon-based materials, cadmium, selenium, copper, nickel, silver, tin, lead, strontium, barium, gold, tantalum and tungsten are all regularly used in solar PV production.

Exposure mainly occurs during development and production, or end-of-life, when chemicals can leach into landfills.

Ethical Consumer considers that a good policy 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.
  • A discussion on the company’s progress in finding alternatives.

Not one company received our best rating for Pollution and Toxics.

Sharp, REC, Panasonic and Hyundai all received a worst rating.

Carbon footprint and climate change

A typical UK home solar PV system could save 1.3 to 1.6 tonnes of carbon per year. The average UK carbon footprint, including imported goods, is around 12 tonnes.

Solar PV has an initial carbon footprint from production, but it is small. The sum of all the energy required to produce a unit of solar energy (embedded energy) is around 4% of its output. And fossil fuels have carbon footprints from their production too – coal’s embedded energy is 11%.

Solar PV is one of the pillars of plans to decarbonise Europe’s power supply, and the European Commission described solar PV as among the most cost-effective electricity generation technologies, although it does vary on how far south you are. As we are a murky, windy island, solar PV is likely to play a smaller part in our decarbonised future than in Spain’s, but the Climate Change Committee suggests that it could contribute 10-15% of our energy in 2050, which is still significant.

But it’s worth remembering that just installing solar panels doesn't save an ounce of carbon. They have to be used to
do that. James Page from JoJu states that, often, building developers install solar to tick a box to get planning permission, with no interest in continuing its operation. He stated, “I’ve found systems that have never been switched on.”
 

The supply chain of solar panels

China’s solar cell and module production accounts for over 70% of total global production. Malaysia is the second largest at 6%, with South Korea, Japan, India, USA, and Thailand following.
 
China is poised to remain industry leader for several years.

Many solar PV manufacturers offer lengthy environmental reports but when it comes to supply chain management, they divulge very little information.

Given the weak enforcement of occupational health and safety standards in China, the potential for workers to be exposed to hazardous chemicals such as cadmium is concerning.

Other dangers to workers

There is also significant risk of workers’ rights violations in the mining of quartz (from which polysilicon for photovoltaic cells is produced). It’s often sourced from countries with fewer regulations and the mining is linked with the respiratory disease silicosis.

A recent report by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, which assessed abuses in solar panel supply chains, highlighted how nickel mining companies were facing 18 allegations of human rights abuses.

There are also issues around the minerals sometimes called ‘conflict minerals’ which are found in the DR Congo, where the mining trade has been used to fund brutal conflicts. Ethical Consumer expects companies to have a policy addressing conflict minerals regardless of whether they are bound to do so under the US Dodd-Frank Act.

LG received a best rating for Conflict Minerals, while all others received a worst.

A new issue since our last guide is Uyghur forced labour in the Xinjiang region of China. About one third of polysilicon used to make solar panels is said to come from Xinjiang. Sharp Corporation was named in a 2020 Australian Strategic Policy Institute report as a company that is directly or indirectly benefiting from Uyghur labour.

Since 2017, the Chinese government is estimated to have arbitrarily detained up to two million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui and members of other Muslim groups in purpose-built detention camps.

Number and Average Cost of annual new domestic PV installations

diagram: cost of solar panels

Solar Scorecard

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) is a US-based non-profit that produces rankings of solar panel manufacturers, aiming to pressure companies to make panels safer for the environment and workers. It covers toxic chemicals, recycling and supply chains.

In the latest scorecard (2018-19) JinkoSolar received a perfect score of 100. Some other companies in this guide were rated by the Solar Scorecard:

Visit the Solar Scorecard website for more details.

Community views on solar

Renewables take up a lot of space. If solar initiatives are imposed against the community’s will, things can go sour.
 

Mayan campaigners fight against JinkoSolar project

Mayan campaigners in Mexico have made a claim against the Mexican government authorities that have issued permits for a local solar farm. The judge initially determined that the project would be suspended until he could rule on the case. But even though no ruling has yet been made, an appeal was granted in January 2020, permitting work to continue.

Pedro Uc, a member of the organisation Asamblea Maya Múuch' Xíinbal which defends Mayan land against megaprojects and supported the plaintiffs, told Ethical Consumer that the company involved – JinkoSolar, refuses to halt the project.

“This company acquired a piece of land in Valladolid, Yucatán, Mexico, to carry out a renewable photovoltaic energy project in an area of approximately 300 hectares. This project entails deforestation, impacting birds, animals and the forest.

According to Mexican law and ILO Convention 169, development companies should consult indigenous communities on this type of project. The consultations did not take place prior to the project, were not free, well-informed, or culturally appropriate, or in good faith as is required.

The company has attempted to speak with our assembly, but we could not achieve anything through this because they are determined to carry out this project.

JinkoSolar is not giving up. They have carried out a disinformation campaign in nearby communities to try to get support. Thank you for accompanying us in our fight.”

JinkoSolar responded to Ethical Consumer’s request for comment. It stated:

“Jinko and the project company have been in compliance with all local and federal laws […] The Ministry of Energy determined that the only communities that may be affected are Ebtun and Cuncunul and permitted the project to proceed accordingly after explicit consent from these two communities”.

JinkoSolar also states that it reached out to Múuch' Xíinbal but request for dialogue was refused.

To see JinkoSolar's response see the bottom of this guide.

Invest in solar

Energise Africa is an online impact investing platform enabling people to invest from £50 in ISA eligible bonds issued by solar businesses operating across sub-Saharan Africa. Investments enable businesses to provide solar home systems to low income families on pay-as-you-go payment plans.

Dreaming of life off grid

Solar PV can help make energy self-sufficiency a reality.

People regularly use on-grid panels in off-grid applications as it’s cheaper. The main reason to buy off-grid panels would be if you need ruggedised or flexible panels for harsh environments, or panels to fit on mobile homes or boats.

However, using on-grid panels can get you in trouble without proper precaution due to higher module voltages. Three modern on-grid 350W panels in series have an open circuit voltage of 120V DC – so there should be trained/qualified personnel involved in installation.

Rachel Marshall was off grid for over two years, using a second-hand solar panel on her boat in Lancaster.

“Once you see the volts going down when you turn an electrical device on, you soon realise how many ways we use energy. It’s a precious resource.”

Portable panels

If you just need power to charge your phone or laptop, roll-up solar panels, solar backpacks, and even solar briefcases could meet your needs. They are much cheaper than installed panels, too.

image: canal boat solar panel
Rachel Marshall's second hand solar panel pictured on her boat in Lancaster.

Tips for solar panel buyers

  1. Don’t count on financial returns. Thousands of people complained to watchdog Financial Services Ombudsman after not receiving the savings expected from their panels. Financial rewards are not guaranteed.

  2. Take other energy saving measures first. Reduce energy consumption before installing panels. Draught-proofing, insulating, and replacing windows are ways to reduce heating demand.

  3. Choose installers carefully. If an installer books you in without asking basic questions to make sure it’s a good decision, this should ring alarm bells. Read up on its finances, too. If your installer goes bust you’ll only get help from other companies at a premium.

  4. Choose reliable panels. Choose panels that produce more power per surface unit and sustain this performance over time. As solar panels age the performance reduces but the speed at which it does so varies significantly.

  5. Specify your needs. Even with the most reliable contractor, it’s essential that you are clear on what you want out of your solar panels. Specify your requirements clearly.

  6. Access free advice from the Energy Saving Trust or the Centre for Alternative Technology

Smart Export Guarantee

The Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) is currently the only solar panel funding available in the UK.

Typically, solar panels are wired up so that if your panel generates more energy than you use, the excess green energy is fed into the grid. The SEG enables smallscale low-carbon electricity generators to get paid by their energy supplier for this energy – up to around 11 p/KWh.

To be eligible, residential solar systems are normally required to be accredited by the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) or Flexi-orb.
 

Saving surplus energy

Companies may also try to sell you batteries when you’re buying on-grid panels.

Obviously you will need them for off-grid systems.

Batteries allow you to save surplus energy and take a step towards energy independence, if you want that.

But batteries are pricey, and their efficiency decreases over time, so you won’t necessarily recover the financial investment you make within the battery’s lifetime.

And John Beardmore, managing director at T4 Sustainability Ltd., highlights that using batteries for on-grid systems is inefficient if you want to reduce overall carbon emissions, not just your own. Feeding excess energy into the grid and buying it back when needed could a better option for this.

If you have an immersion heater you could instead store the excess energy in water.

From Spring to Autumn, while there is lots of daylight and you will probably not want space heating, a solar diverter unit can direct excess solar energy into heating your water. Units may cost around £300 and payback through savings could be around 3 years.
 

Solar panel maintenance

Modern on-grid panels are built to withstand some pretty rough treatment (including glancing impacts by tennis-ball-sized hail stones for example). James Page, head of engineering from JoJu, has the following advice on maintenance.

“On the rare occasion where output drops by 5% or so, cleaning may be justified. It will probably be bird mess or black grime. If a panel fails completely it can be difficult to spot without thermal imaging equipment, apart from obvious cases of smashed glass. Fitting a good monitoring system that sends alerts is important.”

Recycling solar panels

Under ‘Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment’ (WEEE) regulations, industries must take responsibility for the impact of products once they become waste. Though it’s an EU initiative, WEEE does not appear to have been impacted by Brexit.

PV Cycle is a commonly used UK takeback scheme. Reputable installers will provide information to consumers on recycling.

Module reuse is more efficient than component or material extraction. The challenge is finding a market for hundreds of gigawatts of decommissioned modules a year. One suggestion is using them to charge light electric vehicles like eBikes and eScooters in cities.

Community energy

There are around 300 UK community energy projects. ‘Community energy’ may involve:

    • An energy project wholly or partly owned by a community group.
    • A community group hosting a project on a site they own or manage.
    • Community benefit societies where profits are directed towards the community and members share control.
    • Community members having an active role in an energy project.

Several local authority buying schemes exist. For example, group-buying scheme Solar Together Greater Manchester  helps people through the process of group-buying and installing solar panels.

Take action

Campaign to let community schemes sell electricity directly to customers.

Steve Shaw, director of Power for People, told Ethical Consumer about the campaign to allow community energy schemes to sell their electricity directly to customers.

“You want to buy locally baked bread? You can. You want to buy locally brewed beer? You can. You want to buy locally generated renewable energy? You can’t.

The UK is way off track in meeting its climate targets, and yet community renewables projects like solar arrays are being blocked by outdated rules that run our energy system. The government admitted in 2014 that community renewables could make up 5% of all generated UK electricity by 2020. But the right policy changes never happened and so today they account for less than a tenth of that.

If we could buy our energy directly from a local scheme then new local projects, such as solar panels on schools and sports halls, would be viable.

What is needed is a new duty in law that requires the energy regulator, Ofgem, to enable community schemes to sell their electricity directly to customers. Power for People have drafted the Local Electricity Bill, which would do just that, and we are campaigning for it to become law. Support so far is encouraging: 237 MPs are on board – that’s well over a third of the House of Commons – but many more are needed.“

You can help by signing up and writing to your MP. Go to the Power for the People website.

JinkoSolar's response to this article

The new title is still biased to the claimants. Should I recall that the claim is not against Jinko but Government, therefore we believe something like this would be more accurate  “Mayan campaigners fight against the federal government and the local mayan communities to halt a solar project led by Jinko Solar that has all permits approved”

Also when you refer to the Revision Appeal, it would be worth to say that although it was granted in January 2020 permitting the company to continue work on the project, Jinko has not resumed the works.

We want to thank you for the opportunity for us to refute the information in the article you plan to publish. The draft as currently worded in the article is factually inaccurate, fallacious, biased and misleading. Jinko Solar (“Jinko”) is a socially responsible company that complies with local and federal laws as well as international treaties wherever it operates business, including Mexico. Below please find our comments and responses to the draft article in connection with Cuncunul Project (the “Project”).

Jinko and the project company have been in compliance with all local and federal laws and regulations and have obtained all the government and regulatory permits required to develop, finance, build, construct and operate the Project. Specifically, conditions as required legally and regulatorily, including mitigation and compensatory requirements (among others, monitoring of fauna and flora, maintaining an ecological reserve of 15% of the project area throughout the life of the Project, good care of protected species as well as reforestation plans) are all complied.

Neither Jinko nor the project company have been sued. The plaintiffs' claim is against the government authorities responsible for issuing permits for the Project. As a socially responsible company, we have halted construction since the allegation was brought forward. We have cooperated with the relevant government agencies in resolving the issue and have voluntarily appeared in the lawsuit as a third party in defending the Project. While court’s final decision has not yet been rendered, the allegation is subjective and bears no ground to reflect facts in our view.

The Project is located on private lands in the community of Ebtún, Valladolid. The Ministry of Energy determined that the only communities that may be affected are Ebtún and Cuncunul and permitted the Project to proceed accordingly after explicit consent from these two communities were obtained. It is worth noting that the plaintiffs are not members from either of these two communities.

The cenote is in fact outside the perimeters of the Project. In addition, there are no records, evidence, or proof that the cenote has been used for at least the last 50 years. According to studies conducted by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (“INAH”), inside the cenote there is fungus virus called histoplasma that causes a disease (histoplasmosis), which is fatal and can cause death. As such, human access to the cenote is not recommended. INAH requires a series of protection measures, which are fully complied by Jinko and the project company. These measures include a security perimeter between the cenote and the Project and at least one access to the cenote outside the project perimeters such that access to the cenote is not affected.

Regarding the Free, Prior, and Informed Consultation (CPLI, by its Spanish acronym) process: o During a period of approximately 2 years, Jinko conducted social field work and held meetings with representatives and people from the communities of Ebtún and Cuncunul. Social Impact Assessment (EVIS by its Spanish acronym) was completed and presented to the Ministry of Energy and was subsequently approved. The approval determined that Cuncunul and Ebtún were the only communities that may be affected by the Project and required CPLI to be performed. Subsequently, the CPLI was initiated. It took approximately one year and more than 20 meetings were held with the communities. The entire process was organized orderly and transparently by the Ministry of Energy, without the presence and interference from Jinko. Furthermore, the process was closely monitored by other government entities such as the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (CDI, now INPI) and the Undersecretary of Energy of Yucatan Government. The Institute for the Development of the Mayan Culture of the Yucatan State (INDEMAYA, by its Spanish acronym) acted as translator throughout the process. o The CPLI process was completed with signature of a series of agreements between the communities of Ebtún and Cuncunul and Jinko, whereby the communities officially authorized the Project, along with Jinko’s commitments to share part of the benefits of the Project to improve socially the lives for the people of the communities during the construction and operation of the Project. o This process complied with all the requirements of Mexican regulations and ILO Convention 169. The process was conducted and completed in full compliance with the requirement of a prior, free, informed, culturally appropriate, and good faith process.

The construction of the Project did not begin until more than 6 months after the completion of the CPLI, until all the environmental, social, anthropological and energy permits as required by federal, state, and local levels were duly obtained.

The judicial process to date is as follows: o The district judge determined the definitive suspension of the construction, for the duration of the trial and until such time as he ruled on the merits of the case. Jinko complied with the decision and suspended construction. Jinko filed a Revision Appeal before a collegiate court on May 8th, 2019, which subsequently ruled in favor of Jinko on Jan 23, 2020. The resolution authorizes Jinko to resume the works on Project, despite the work has not been reassumed by Jinko at this time. The trial is at a procedural stage of gathering testimonies and evidence, so there is no ruling.

It should be noted that the communities of Ebtún and Cuncunul publicly demonstrated their support to the Project and their representatives have appeared in the litigation process as interested third parties in support of the Project.

In addition, representatives of the communities have publicly requested the plaintiffs and Muuch Xiimbal a dialogue to understand their positions. This dialogue has been rejected by the plaintiffs.

Jinko also reached out to Muuch Xiimbal to understand their reasons and positions and to explain the benefits of the Project for local development, for the State of Yucatan and for Mexico. However, the request for dialogue was refused. Finally, we reiterate that Jinko has complied in the development and construction of the Project with all local, state, and federal laws as well as with ILO Convention 169, is a socially responsible company and has abided with any decision or measure imposed by the judicial authorities. 

Company behind the brand

Hyundai Energy Solutions is owned by Korea Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering Co., Ltd (KSOE). It also owns Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI). Four HHI workers died in separate incidents in the first five months of 2020. A spokesperson from the Korean Metal Workers Union told Ethical Consumer that the company was actively involved in union busting

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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