The ethics of solar panels

Ethics of solar panels

On the face of it, installing solar panels on your home or business seems like an ethical no-brainer. After all, you’re immediately reducing emissions and you can feel like your action on combating climate change is real and positive. Shortly after your shiny new system has been commissioned no doubt you’ll be saying to yourself “well done me for being awesome”. And if I was standing next to you, I’d be saying the same thing!

You really are helping to reduce emissions. You really are helping to combat climate change. And yes, you are indeed awesome!

But, as it turns out, all solar panels are equal but some are more equal than others if you’ll momentarily allow me to riff on George Orwell. 

As you might expect with pretty much anything these days, the manufacturing of solar panels takes place in our globalised world and the systems that govern it. There are, therefore, many factors that impact the overall footprint of a solar panel. Where it was manufactured and the distance it has travelled to get to your roof, the material choices for components, the energy consumed when manufacturing it and who works in processing the raw materials and who actually puts it all together.  

It is this last point that I am going to concentrate on for this blog. Who, and how. 

The biggest solar manufacturers in the world include the likes of LONGi Solar, Jinko Solar, JA Solar, Trina Solar, Canadian Solar, Risen Energy. The upshot of this is that these brands are highly likely to be the ones offered to businesses and consumers in the UK, simply because of the number of units they can ship. In 2021, LONGi alone shipped approximately 175 million solar panels. In 2022, they have targets of 250 million. These companies make a lot of solar panels!  

But there is a problem, all the aforementioned companies have been implicated in research on forced labour. A peer-reviewed academic report uncovered that millions of men and women from the predominantly Muslim Uyghur community have been enslaved. In April 2021, the UK Government voted to describe this as genocide

Now, to be clear, it is extremely difficult to unpick this situation. The enslavement of people is happening way up the supply chain and likely involves many industries, not just the solar industry. However, the solar industry and the manufacturers listed above are known to receive their materials from this area. Polysilicon (a key ingredient in the manufacture of solar panels) manufacturers in the Uyghur Region account for approximately 45% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon supply. These polysilicon manufacturers are known suppliers of LONGi Solar, Jinko Solar, JA Solar and Trina Solar. 

This leaves the solar industry particularly vulnerable to forced labour in the Uyghur region. ChargeWorks has therefore made the decision not to recommend any of the manufacturers listed above. 

Whilst this is probably leaving you with a pretty bitter taste in your mouth, just as it did ours, there is hope. There are some really great alternatives. And as further reassurance, some manufacturers are even listed in the academic report as global alternatives.  

So, while your choice to ‘go solar’ is doing good, how much good can vary greatly. If you decide to ‘go solar’, you may want to consider the social as well as environmental issues associated with your choice of products.

ChargeWorks is built on the idea that things can be better. Let us help guide you through this complex, and at times unacceptable, industry to help you truly make the best possible impact. Then you really can stand back and think, yep, I’m awesome.