In an age where environmental consciousness continues to grow across the globe, there’s no doubt that solar panels and their associated technologies have emerged as a key player in the fight for sustainability.

Most of us will understand what the prospect of “going solar” feels like. The allure of green, renewable energy is strong, but it’s essential to understand that not all solar products are created equal.

While many solar panels may appear to offer the same benefits, the sustainability and ethical practices of the manufacturers can vary significantly. Those practices can include things like:

  • Where, and how, the products are made
  • The materials of which solar products are made
  • How products are recycled

In this article, we’ll explore what “sustainability” means in the solar industry, examining the ethical practices of leading solar companies, with a focus on SunPower and REC – two leading brands sold and installed by G Store. We’ll also take a look at the critical role of warranty periods in promoting sustainability, understanding more about the state of solar panel recycling in Australia.

Let’s get cracking.

What Does “Sustainability” Mean in the Solar Industry?

Sustainability in the solar industry encompasses a broad spectrum of both practices and principles aimed at ensuring that the production, usage, and disposal of solar panels have minimal negative impacts on the environment, society, and the economy.

More broadly, it’s about creating a clean and renewable energy source without compromising the well-being of current and future generations.

Sustainable solar practices generally include things such as:

  • Responsible sourcing: Sustainable companies and known to prioritise using responsibly sourced materials and ensure that their supply chains are transparent and ethical. This practice reduces the environmental and social impact of mining and manufacturing industries
  • Longevity of solar products: Sustainable solar panels are designed to last for decades in order to minimise wastage and the potential for landfill. Longer product lifespans reduce the need for frequent solar panel replacements, ultimately minimising waste and reducing the environmental footprint\
  • Recyclability: It’s generally accepted that up to 95% of a thoughtfully-manufactured solar panel is able to be recycled (e.g. silicone, aluminium frames and silver components). The degree of recyclability of a particular panel depends not only on what the products are made of, but the processes by which they are (or aren’t) recycled
  • Ethical and inclusive practices: Sustainable solar companies emphasise diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in their operational processes. They prioritise creating a work environment that reflects these values and promotes the welfare of their employees and communities

What are some sustainable and ethical solar companies?

When you embark on the search for ethical and sustainable solar products, you’ll likely come across a realisation: sustainable and ethical solar companies exist, but they can be tricky to find due to the market being flooded with cheaper, nastier alternatives.

Two brands leading the way are both SunPower and REC – companies that are wholly committed to sustainable and ethical practice, as well as continual improvement into the future.

Both these solar companies are committed to making a positive impact on the environment and society. SunPower, in particular, has demonstrated its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion through its DE&I initiatives. REC focuses on the durability and recyclability of its products, making them a sustainable choice for consumers.

SunPower’s dedication to sustainability is evident in its 2022 Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Report, which outlines the company’s commitment to creating a more equitable and sustainable future. The company proudly emphasises a diverse and inclusive work environment, demonstrating their strong and impressive commitment to DE&I. SunPower’s Foundation is dedicated to building a resilient and sustainable economy powered by solar energy.

REC, on the other hand, ensures the sustainability of its products by focusing on durability and recyclability. REC panels have a low carbon footprint and a quick energy payback time, meaning they generate more energy than is required to produce them. Their commitment to sustainability is further demonstrated through policies, certifications, and their participation in the fight against climate change, as seen in their COP21 initiative.

What role does warranty period play in sustainability?

One key determinant of sustainability is the warranty period offered by solar panel manufacturers.

A more extended warranty period, such as the 40-year warranty offered by SunPower Maxeon solar panels, is a strong indicator of a company’s confidence in the longevity and durability of its products. Importantly, when solar panels come with extended warranties, it reduces the need for frequent replacements – a major contributor to solar panel waste.

We suggest that you consider warranty periods as a critical factor when choosing solar panels. A more extended warranty not only provides peace of mind but also contributes to the overall sustainability of the global solar energy system.

Can solar panels be recycled?

Over the last few years, Australia has seen a remarkable rise in the adoption of rooftop solar panels, with millions of homes now relying on solar power.

However, this trend also raises significant concerns regarding the fate of older solar panels reaching the end of their life cycle. Currently, the majority of broken or expired solar panels end up in landfills, and experts predict that over 100,000 tonnes of modules will end up there by 2035.

As you might imagine, solar panel recycling is a crucial aspect of the industry’s relationship with sustainability, particularly so as it minimises waste and reduces the overall environmental impact of an energy source designed to be sustainable.

Across our country, there are limited options for recycling solar panels, with only a few recycling plants like Reclaim PV in Adelaide offering such services. Recycling one solar panel costs approximately $10 (excl. GST), excluding freight to South Australia.

To encourage recycling and reduce the environmental impact of discarded panels, it has become essential for more Australian jurisdictions to follow the example set by Victoria and ban the disposal of solar panels in landfills. The challenge lies in developing a network to raise awareness and make recycling more accessible.

One potential solution to enhance solar panel recycling is to shift the responsibility to manufacturers. This approach is already in use in Europe, where manufacturers cover the cost of collecting and recycling solar panels at the end of their life cycle. While it may increase the initial cost for consumers, it streamlines the process, ensuring responsible disposal and promoting sustainable design.

So – what’s next?

In your pursuit of a greener, more sustainable future via the use of solar power, we suggest that it’s crucial to select solar panels that truly align with your values.

Sustainable solar practices involve responsible sourcing, durable products, recyclability, and ethical business practices – topics that you should discuss with your chosen providers as you whittle down the options in front of you.

Wrapping up

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