Solar power is a poster child of sustainability, at least from the standpoint of energy users. It provides a clean alternative to GHG-emitting fossil fuels and runs indefinitely on free energy from the sun. What more, then, is there to the sustainability of solar energy?
Plenty, and the industry’s largest gathering, Intersolar, which I attended in San Francisco this week, offers a glimpse into why.
The event is an exhibition of more than 800 companies selling their wares—everything from wafer etchers, adhesives, and gauges to gears, filters, and fire alarms. They sell the equipment that makes equipment, and the equipment that makes that equipment. And they are the purveyors of exciting items like plasma applicators, robots, and lasers.
As for the attendees, it’s all black suits and ties, and the discussions are on engineering specs and market trends. It feels more like a summit for making deals, rather than achieving some vision of “ecotopia.”
While there is nothing wrong with all of this, it does bring to light an important truth: The parts that make up the whole of the solar industry are little different than those of any other. And while environmental conservation may be a side effect, the efforts, by and large, are about capitalism.
Thus, as manufacturers, solar companies may cause damaging environmental impacts from their use of water, gasses, chemicals, minerals, and nanomaterials. As designers of large, long-lived physical goods, they are seen as part of a great network of potential e-waste, with end-of-life responsibilities that extend beyond the law. And as global businesses that seek low-cost employees and supplies, the emerging markets that offer so much promise are rife with potential social challenges such as protecting human rights.
If the solar industry is to create the most value for its investors, customers, and communities—all of whom have growing concerns about sustainability and greater means for comparing companies and industries to one another—it has to make sense of all of this. The good news is that others have taken the lead. The information communications and technology (ICT) industry, for example, has started complying with best practices for responsible policy advocacy and working with their suppliers to improve labor conditions and environmental impacts. Since solar companies have similar production processes and supply chains, they can build off of the foundation that the ICT industry has already established.
Yet solar is different: It makes a promise, however implicit, to offer a clean alternative to fossil fuels. This expectation makes the industry a target, and if solar companies can’t objectively demonstrate better overall performance, they risk having their credibility undermined and their technologies devalued.
Some quick parting advice for solar companies new to managing sustainability: Consult the Global Reporting Initiative to understand the full breadth of key issues. Know who your stakeholders are, and identify and synthesize their concerns. Make sustainability a C-level concern, so when decisions are made about maximizing the all-important parameter of per-watt productivity, sustainability opportunities and risks are appropriately considered. And finally, attend this year’s BSR Conference, and join me at the panel, ”The CSR Blueprint for Renewable Energy.”