How ethical is the solar industry?

Fast read

The solar industry, a key player in addressing global energy challenges and carbon emissions, faces numerous ethical considerations. Despite its environmental benefits, issues such as manufacturing processes, supply chain integrity, labour practices, waste management, and societal impact must be scrutinised.

While offering significant environmental advantages by reducing reliance on fossil fuels and lowering carbon emissions, the industry also contributes to economic development and job creation. However, concerns exist over the net environmental benefit due to the energy-intensive manufacturing of solar panels. Despite an energy payback period of 1-1.5 years for panels lasting over 25 years, challenges in guaranteeing ethical procurement and responsible disposal of panels remain.

Allegations of forced labour in polysilicon production, primarily in China, and unethical mining practices for battery materials like cobalt, especially in Africa, raise serious concerns.

Additionally, unethical sales tactics within the industry, particularly in Australia, highlight the need for better regulation and consumer awareness. The industry is evolving, with companies increasingly adopting transparent and ethical practices. To continue as a sustainable and ethical energy solution, collaborative efforts among governments, industry, and civil society are crucial for setting and enforcing ethical standards in the solar sector.

Are there ethics in the solar industry?

The solar sector has emerged as a possible answer to the global energy dilemma and carbon emissions reduction. While solar energy has tremendous environmental benefits, it is also critical to consider the industry’s ethical dimensions, given its importance in the future energy mix.

The question has to be asked- How ethical is solar and the renewable energy industry in general?

Ethical considerations in the solar sector cover many topics, such as the manufacturing process, the solar supply chain, labour practices, waste from solar panel installations, recycling of battery storage products, and the overall societal impact of the industry.

The ethics of the solar industry should be questioned, just like any industry, and just because it gives us a warm inner glow when we think of renewables, this does not mean that for example, all solar installation companies practice honest solar selling.

It also does not mean that all products offering renewable energy benefits are as good as their claim.

Overall the Australian solar industry has a sound ethical basis with the primary goal to lower electricity bills and generate a benefit for the environment.

solar panels

Are there ethical advantages of the solar industry?

One of solar energy’s most important ethical benefits is its environmental impact. Solar power is a renewable energy source that produces electricity with the help of solar systems, without releasing greenhouse gases or polluting the atmosphere.

It is a fact that installed solar products reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by harvesting solar energy, lowering carbon emissions, and reducing the risks of climate change. These claimed benefits are consistent with environmental ethics concepts, emphasising the importance of protecting the natural environment and preserving resources for future generations.

Furthermore, the solar industry has the potential to provide jobs and contribute to economic development. Solar power installation growth requires hiring experienced individuals ranging from engineers and technicians to sales and marketing specialists. So the industry offers much more than just looking for lower electricity bills.

As the business grows, it has the potential to provide jobs, particularly in areas where traditional energy sectors are shrinking. Moreover, solar energy projects have the potential to bolster local economies by attracting investments and leading to an increase in tax revenues.

The local population can further benefit from utilising these additional funds for various community development activities. By fostering economic growth and contributing to the overall well-being of communities, solar energy initiatives not only offer environmental advantages but also play a vital role in supporting sustainable and inclusive development at the local level.

Some solar projects involve community ownership, such as community batteries and benefit-sharing arrangements, where local communities receive a share of the revenue generated from solar installations. This can lead to economic empowerment and improved livelihoods for communities, promoting social equity and ethical practices.

Are there any ethical concerns?

There have been concerns over the net benefit of solar due to the emissions costs involved in manufacturing solar panels. Reports suggest that the high energy cost of manufacturing solar panels results in no net environmental benefit.

However, a wide range of studies and research on total life cycle energy cost for solar panel manufacturing from the cradle to the grave has shown that the “energy payback period” to recover the environmental or energy cost of solar panels is around 1 to 1.5 years for panels that have a life expectancy of over 25 years. As such, the environmental benefits of solar panels can be significant.

It can be difficult to guarantee the ethical and responsible procurement of solar panels due to the intricacies of worldwide supply chains. Consumers may lack the means or knowledge to verify the ethical practices of individual companies, making it difficult to hold them accountable for their supply chain practices.

The disposal and recycling of solar panels after their lifespan raise environmental concerns, as some components may contain hazardous materials. While recycling infrastructure is improving, ensuring the proper disposal of solar panels remains an ethical consideration.

Is forced labour an issue?

In 2021 allegations surfaced about forced labor in the solar panel manufacturing industry. The claims especially targeted the western parts of China, and linked slave labour to the manufacture of polysilicon, a key raw material used to manufacture solar panels.

With most of the global supply of silicon coming out of China, there have been significant international efforts to discourage this activity and for panel manufacturers to avoid purchasing materials from suppliers who could be using forced or even slave labour in their production facilities.

Several Chinese panel manufacturers have now been able to provide proof by controlling their supply chain that they do not use the materials from these suppliers and provide statements and reports to prove their compliance with social responsibility and ethical guidelines.

What about solar batteries?

There have been similar concerns with mining materials used in the manufacture of lithium batteries, particularly,

Cobalt is a crucial material in many batteries. The largest reserves of Cobalt are in the Congo area of Africa, with underage and forced labor seen as a significant issue. Manufacturers are trying to avoid these supply chains by using minerals mined without child labor and following social responsibility guidelines.

mining complex

Are there ethical considerations with PV sales techniques?

There have also been concerns regarding ethical sales tactics within Australia, including the use of predatory sales by door-knocking and high-pressure salespersons.

These offer overpriced solutions with unrealistic expectations to unsuspecting people, often pensioners, especially the elderly. Industry organisations such as the Clean Energy Council and Smart Energy Council have established guidelines and accreditations for solar installation companies to follow.

There are still problems in the industry. It can be difficult to prove and confirm unethical sales tactics and behaviour. This is especially true when the customer doesn’t even realise they have been deceived.

In summary

The solar energy industry presents a mixed bag of ethical considerations. While it offers a cleaner and more sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, concerns persist regarding its supply chain practices and the environmental impact of its lifecycle.

However, the industry is evolving and demonstrating a commitment to addressing these ethical challenges. Companies are adopting transparent supply chain practices, ensuring ethical sourcing, and promoting social responsibility initiatives.

Consumers, too, are becoming more aware of ethical considerations and demanding greater transparency from solar companies. As the industry matures and upholds ethical standards, solar energy can continue to play a pivotal role in mitigating climate change and promoting ethical energy production.

To address these difficulties, governments, industry stakeholders, and civil society must work together to set and enforce ethical standards, promote transparency, and prioritise sustainable practices throughout the solar industry’s value chain.

As a result, the solar sector will be able to continue to evolve as an essential component of a more sustainable and ethical energy future.

The solar energy industry presents a mixed bag of ethical considerations. While it offers a cleaner and more sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, concerns persist regarding its supply chain practices and the environmental impact of its lifecycle.

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