The importance of solar company sustainability

Solar company sustainability is vital for an industry that aims to curb climate change.

As a renewable energy provider, you wouldn’t expect your solar company to be environmentally damaging. Yet, practices can lead to a vast amount of unnecessary waste, habitat destruction, and carbon emissions depending on how you choose to operate. This is concerning when we think about the scale of the solar power industry, and how much this industry is expected to grow.

Policy deadlines have led to a photovoltaic (PV) boom, with 23% market growth from 2019-2020. In 2020, solar power accounted for 3.1% of the global electricity generation, making it the third-largest renewable energy technology (behind hydropower and wind respectively). US estimations state that solar power could account for as much as 40% of the nation’s electricity supply by 2050.

If you own or operate a solar business, your intentions are well-placed. You’re supporting this renewable energy transition for a net-zero future. Yet, if you don’t account for every facet of environmental sustainability, your efforts could be void.

It’s for this reason that the Green Business Bureau has put together this article on solar company sustainability. In this article, we present 5 tips that address the environmentally damaging aspects of the solar industry for true sustainability. Plus, implementing these tips will save you money, attract new customers and employees, and elevate your brand above your competitors.

How do solar companies affect the environment?

Below we’ve listed three main ways solar companies negatively impact the environment:

  1. By generating greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) during production, contributing to climate change (the very issue solar power is designed to mitigate).
  2. By creating waste – often toxic – that goes to landfills and pollutes the environment.
  3. By demanding a lot of space, leading to significant land-use change.
  4. By running headquarters and other company-owned buildings in an unsustainable way.

Below we’ve given five tips that tackle the above-listed environmental issues. With this in mind, this guide acts as a great primer for those just getting started with becoming more environmentally responsible and running more sustainable operations.

Tip #1: Use sustainably manufactured panels

The manufacturing of solar panels is extremely resource-intensive, demanding industrial materials, and spewing out carbon emissions from the burning of coal. The footprint of solar panels comes in at 6gCO2e/kWh. Although this is dwarfed by the carbon footprint of coal (109gCO2e/kWh) – and other fossil fuel energies- these emissions remain concerning in an industry built to tackle climate change.

To mitigate this issue, check in with your panel manufacturers to ensure their panels use resources that are ethically sourced, and who share your concerns around the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process.

Support research into less carbon-intensive solar panel designs such as the perovskite solar cells. These solar cells have an average payback of only 0.35 years. Compare this to the payback period of industry-wide silicon cells, which is 1.52 years.

Another way to curb the carbon footprint of the solar panel manufacturing process, while also demanding less raw material, would be to use recycled solar panel parts. Do your research and collaborate with organizations that are working to close the loop and create a more sustainable manufacturing process. For instance, ROSI Solar is a startup organization that extracts silver and silicon from used panels. Soren, another startup business, works to find uses for decommissioned solar panels and removes the aluminum frames and glass.

Another company, BioSolar, is also working to kick petroleum to the curb during the manufacturing process of solar panels. As you may know, silicon cells rely on plastic polymers – which are petroleum-based – to provide protective backing. BioSolar has designed a sustainable substitute. Panels are made using natural fiber cellulose and nylon manufactured from castor beans. These panels are shown to be more effective and lasting in their protection of the PV cells. This is a green tech solution to keep an eye on as developments pass the initial testing phase.

Tip #2: Recycle panels

Just as you can claim recycled solar panel parts to reduce the environmental impact of the manufacturing process, you need to close the loop on your end and recycle decommissioned panels yourself. When disposed of, solar panels can leak toxic materials into the landfills, while also contributing to our global waste crisis. To combat this, solar recycling is a good option. Recycling uses materials from old panels for the production of new ones.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) asserts there could be a total of 78 million tonnes of waste from the solar panel industry by 2050. Yet, further research by the Harvard Business Review states the cumulative waste from decommissioned solar panels will rise far sooner, and to greater numbers, than initially expected. This is because solar panels are often replaced before their recommended 30-year time frame. This information presents two opportunities to reduce waste:

  1. To recycle decommissioned solar panels.
  2. To ensure solar panels are used for their entire lifespan.

The cost of recycling a single solar panel is around $10-20, yet the raw materials recovered from an effective global recycling scheme could be $450 million by 2030. Hence implementing such a scheme makes good business sense.

Solar panels are made primarily of glass, plastic, and aluminum – three materials that can be recycled in mass quantities. Yet, separating these materials requires thorough processes and advanced machinery. In Europe, the PV recycling market is slowly maturing. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) of the European Union founded the PV Cycle, to build a robust recycling infrastructure. The below video showcases the inside of PV Cycle’s plants.

The US market can learn from its European counterparts when it comes to solar panel recycling.

Tip #3: Mitigate the impact of land-use change

Solar panel farms need space. As a rule of thumb, 1kW of solar panels requires a 100 square foot area. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 10 million acres of U.S. land is needed to supply the national electricity needs. This sounds like a lot, but when we consider this figure as a percentage of the total U.S. land, the value is less daunting, representing 0.4%. The report goes on to say that when it comes to something as important as producing renewable electricity, this land-use change shouldn’t be too much of a concern. This is because the space required is dwarfed when compared to the acres of land dedicated to rangeland, military bases, airports, and rights-of-way for fossil fuel pipelines. Yet, that isn’t to say that land-use change for solar farms isn’t an issue to be addressed.

One study published in Environmental Science and Technology examined the use of non-conventional land cover types as areas to support solar farms. The research identified three land types:

  • Built environments,
  • Salt-affected land (non-arable),
  • Contaminated land,
  • Water reservoirs.

Using any one of these land-use types is said to have the potential to work in synergy with conservation efforts. Solar panels can be built into the infrastructure within built environments, demanding no extra space. Salt-affected land has a high concentration of salt or sodium, meaning it’s poor for irrigation and farming practices, presenting an apt opportunity for solar. Contaminated wastelands offer low-impact sites to build solar power farms. And floatovoltaics can harness the sun’s energy while floating on water reservoirs.

It’s important to consider how you use the land to support your solar power infrastructure. Using the advice detailed in this study will lower your environmental impact from land-use change.

Tip #4: Make your headquarters and buildings eco-friendly

Like a lot of businesses, most solar companies have physical offices and warehouses that are central to operations. Simply having a physical location leads to a lot of unnecessary waste. In order to combat the environmental impact of your headquarters and other buildings, implement the tips given below:

  • Switch to efficient LED lighting,
  • Implement a recycling program for your Headquarters (HQ) and other sites,
  • Eliminate paper by going digital,
  • Install water-saving fixtures,
  • Buy second-hand office equipment,
  • Choose a green web hosting service for your website,
  • Install motion sensors for office lighting,
  • Buy remanufactured ink and toner cartridges,
  • Apply window film to block out heat in the summer,
  • Use non-toxic cleaning products.

For a complete guide on how to make offices and headquarters more sustainable, check out our 20 Sustainable Business Practices for Your Workplace and Office article.

Tip #5: Work from home whenever possible

Implementing a work-from-home policy, or remote work, provides a plethora of environmental benefits, from reducing your organization’s carbon footprint by limiting the employee commute, to offering more flexible work schedules benefiting the wellbeing of your employees. Below we’ve listed the main benefits that come from implementing a work-from-home policy, as listed in our article Remote Work Sustainability: Environmental Benefits Of Working At Home:

  • Fewer emissions: Less fuel is burnt to support the employee commute. This benefits air quality and lowers our reliance on fossil fuels.
  • Less office building space: With more employees working from home, less office space is required.
  • Access to a larger pool of candidates: Working remotely also enables companies to tap into a larger pool of potential candidates from places around the world with different skill sets.
  • Access to a more diverse workforce: Working from home grants the opportunity to create a more diverse workforce by hiring from different demographics, geographical regions, and cultures.
  • Better work-life balance: Working from home gives flexibility to the employee as to when and where they work. Employees can move further from the office to lower their cost of living, and plan their work time around their at-home demands, ultimately giving employees more time to spend with their families.

To make sure an employee’s home office is green and efficient, check out our article looking at how to create a sustainable home office: Optimizing the At-Home Office For Green Efficiency.

Get more customers to switch to solar

Solar energy is a great renewable energy source that does not emit carbon, so the more customers who purchase solar panels, the better the environment will be. It is a solar company’s job to promote their solar energy. It will be easier for customers to take notice if the companies they purchase from are in fact sustainable.

For this reason, it’s important that you market both the benefits of customers switching to solar (saving money, protecting the planet, and adding value to their home), as well as the specific benefits of buying from your solar company. You can show the value of your company by demonstrating your commitment to sustainability through green business certification.

Demonstrate your commitment to sustainability

On your green journey, it’s important you don’t greenwash or mislead your customers.

Consider certifying your business by a 3rd party like the Green Business Bureau (GBB), to verify the sustainability of your operations. By joining GBB, you can get credit for the sustainable practices that you already do, and you can receive in-depth guidance on how to solve the problems listed above. When you join the Green Business Bureau, we evaluate your business and provide you with a scorecard that you can link to on your company website. The GBB seal will help you stand out from the competition.

The business case for solar company sustainability

The Return on Investment (ROI) for implementing sustainability in your business can be seen across four main areas:

  • Cost savings,
  • Increased sales,
  • Employee recruitment and satisfaction,
  • Risk reduction.

For an in-depth breakdown of these benefits and the ROI of sustainability, read: The Return on Investment (ROI) of Sustainable Business.

Overall, it’s up to you to promote sustainable practices in the solar industry. Promoting sustainability starts with running sustainable business operations. Many solar companies tout the eco-friendliness of solar energy, yet fail to address operations that are fundamentally damaging to the environment. Solar companies that address these issues will stand out from the competition, showing that they not only talk the talk but also build sustainability into the core of their business.

Connor is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from Providence College. He is passionate about educating others about sustainability. In his free time, he loves to spend time with his friends, go for walks in nature, and play sports.

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