Solar with a conscience: the path to ethical energy

The UK’s solar energy output reached historic heights in 2022. With 111,500 new solar PV systems installed, renewable energy’s share rose significantly to 41.4%. With more than a million homes now benefiting from solar panels, we can safely say that the benefits of solar are widely understood.

Developments in solar PV

This may be cause for some celebration, but our work is far from done. For solar to be a genuinely ethical solution and a firm part of the move towards decarbonisation, it’s time to get serious about the realities of the social and environmental impact at every stage of the solar journey.

While the industry was focused on generating demand, showcasing the benefits of wide solar adoption was the priority. It became easy to dismiss the challenges or complexities involved in the transition, or the ethical dilemmas at play. But as the world has become more solar savvy, it’s up to everyone in the solar industry to champion a responsible transition to sustainable solar energy.

Here are some of the challenges we must consider to ensure that the rise of solar provides a lasting solution for our people and planet.

With the right education, goals and tools, every installation can truly contribute to a brighter, greener future.

Empower the consumer to make ethical choices

A recent report from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) revealed that solar panels now rank as the third most valued home improvement, behind only new windows, and bathrooms / kitchens. In the survey, over 33% of the consumers polled favoured solar over other renovations. However, this figure rises to over 50% when looking at the perspectives of homeowners between the ages of 18 and 30.

As younger and more environmentally conscious generations get on the property ladder and, with the same study showing that the lifetime value of a property is significantly increased after solar panel installation, this trend is likely to continue.

The same RICS survey showed that upfront costs are still the biggest barrier to uptake of domestic solar, with 46% of homeowners saying they would be more likely to move forward with a solar installation if they had access to a finance product such as a green mortgage or government loan that removes this financial hurdle. If such an option becomes available, we can expect popularity to further surge.

This rise in people seeking solar solutions is brilliant for our industry, but we can’t let the service and education we offer suffer as uptake becomes more mainstream. Where consumers are looking for authoritative guidance, it’s the job of trusted industry professionals to give advice that balances the benefits with the costs, as well as the ongoing ethical considerations.

Understand the carbon footprint of solar panel production

Amidst this surge in solar adoption, we must advocate for greener choices in panel production. The encouraging drop of more than 80% in global solar panel costs over the last decade offers an opportunity to prioritise low-carbon alternatives without price being a deal breaker.

This puts a burden on manufacturers, suppliers and installers to keep finding options for all budgets, with a focus on encouraging the greenest options.

While prohibitive pricing historically forced suppliers to prioritise affordability, we’re no longer in an age where we need to cut corners or ignore important factors for the greater good of cementing the market presence of solar. Environmental costs are just as important.

It’s time to interrogate the carbon footprint of every stage of the process.

  • Seek out products with domestically produced materials to reduce the environmental impact of the transportation of goods.
  • Look for factories using lower emission or renewable-powered manufacturing processes.
  • Investigate products with advances in technology that equate to greater lifetime carbon efficiency, such as thin-film solar.

Demanding transparency from suppliers around how green their manufacturing methods and materials really are, where their products are generated and sourced, and switching to alternatives with a proven lower environmental impact are all key to lowering the lifecycle carbon footprint of panels.

Human rights and safety concerns in the supply chain

Is clean energy worth the potential human cost? As the rush for materials accelerates to keep up with the long-awaited demand for solar power, there is increased focus on keeping costs low.

Historically, these budgeting measures have often been at the expense of human rights. We must not let the social conditions of production go without scrutiny. This is important at every stage of the process, from the retrieval of raw materials through to assembly and distribution.

As the UK government aims to create 60,000 solar industry jobs by 2035, we must ensure these jobs come with fair wages, safe working conditions, and respect for human rights. Where possible, the same pressure should be put on our partners abroad.

2015’s Modern Slavery Act provides a framework for organisations of all sizes to combat poor, dangerous or exploitative practices in the businesses they work with and is the minimum you should demand. Pushing further to demand proof of ethical treatment at all stages within the supply chain is crucial.

The recycling challenge of solar panels

With most reputable manufacturers offering production warranties for 25 years or more, the expectation of the life of a solar panel is currently around 30 years. The disposal process was a distant concern when domestic solar was new and uptake slow but is now becoming a pressing problem. The staggering growth of solar installations necessitates responsible end-of-life disposal solutions. Otherwise, we run the risk that the sheer amount of waste product generated will cause potential harm that far outweighs the environmental benefits in the long term.

Recycling can, and should, be built into the lifecycle of solar installations. Recoverable assets from effectively recycled panels can yield materials equivalent to two billion new panels by 2050, which has the potential to make this a truly sustainable ecosystem from end to end.

The announcement by the Biden-Harris Administration to invest $82 million in domestic solar manufacturing and recycling underscores the global importance of recycling in the solar industry. We should advocate for similar measures in the UK. This could include ensuring that there is adequate support for suppliers seeking to use recycled materials in their manufacturing process, and for those looking to implement effective recycling programmes as part of purchase plans.

Products with a longer lifetime would also reduce the need for recycling at the pace we’re currently faced with, reducing the burden on the industry. Evolving technologies with greater longevity, such as solar slate tiles, will improve in efficiency, enabling them to be more broadly considered as alternatives to panels.

The industry plan for truly ethical solar so far

The number of considerations needed to ensure long-term social and environmental responsibility can be overwhelming. Only through collective effort will we drive innovation, advance greener production methods, and ensure solar delivers its long-term potential ethically. It is good to see the industry is working towards this, laying out guidelines and expectations.

  • Solar Energy UK states that one of its top priorities is ‘to help ensure a sustainable and ethical solar supply chain globally’ and its Responsible Sourcing Task Group works with experts to develop a robust and comprehensive programme, responsible procurement guidance is available online, with a more advanced toolkit available to members.
  • The UK’s ESG (environment, social and governance) reporting requirements, and the standards that frame them, are a key part of understanding the impact of the companies you work with. These are constantly evolving based on UK, EU and global regulations, and will soon include a necessity for disclosure of net zero transition plans for certain organisations.

You can be a part of the future of these goals, guidelines and regulations. It is the job of the grassroots and frontline community to provide ongoing, up-to-the-minute consultancy about the realities of domestic solar installation and maintenance. This ensures that any new proposals from government or industry bodies deliver long-term sustainability, and don’t overlook key factors that could prohibit genuine results. Knowledge, practicality and on-the-ground impact are all key to a sustainable solution.

Be part of the future

How can we ensure that we’re actively working towards a responsible UK solar industry? Here are 10 steps to get started.

1. Stay informed:

Stay updated on industry initiatives for environmental and social responsibility, and the latest laws and advice. Remain engaged with organisations like Solar Energy UK.

2. Have your say:

Be active in the solar community, engage in conversations with regulatory bodies, local government officials and campaigning groups.

3. Educate consumers:

Empower customers with information about the ethical complexities of solar panels, helping them make conscientious choices based on more than simply cost.

4. Advocate for recycling:

Support suppliers with recycling programs or incentives for the return of old panels. Get to know the latest responsible end-of-life solutions so you can utilise and promote them.

5. Consider new technologies:

Whether it’s solar slate or thin-film technology, exploring the adoption of materials with increased longevity or a lower lifetime carbon footprint could be the key to responsible solar.

6. Support responsible production:

Whenever feasible, choose suppliers who offer domestically produced panels to reduce the carbon footprint associated with shipping, as well as prioritising products that have a lower emissions manufacturing process, or one powered by renewable energy.

7. Promote human rights:

Prioritise suppliers with ethical labour practices, fair wages, and safe working conditions in their manufacturing facilities. Use the Modern Slavery Act as a starting point.

8. Demand transparency:

Require detailed information on manufacturing methods, labour practices, and carbon emissions from everyone you engage with in the solar industry. Use the latest ESG standards to guide what you demand, and what you’re looking for in response.

9. Keep suppliers aware:

Express your ethical expectations to the suppliers you work with to encourage them to adhere to high ethical and social standards.

10. Be ready to switch:

If your current suppliers fail to meet ethical or social criteria, be prepared to switch to those aligned with your values. Explain your decision to send a clear message to the industry that ethical solar matters.

A truly green alternative

Our actions, as the solar industry, directly influence consumers. Prioritising ethical solar practices empowers customers to make informed, conscientious choices, and builds confidence in a sustainable energy transition. With a projected increase of over 450,000 UK residential solar PV installations per year by 2030, it’s time for sustainable solutions now if we are to be successful in our mission to become a carbon neutral nation by 2050.

As long-term advocates of the switch to solar, it’s great to celebrate the astounding recent growth in the sector as well as the progress made so far. But we cannot forget our shared responsibility. The glow of solar power will shine even brighter if we promote a legacy of genuine, sustainable decarbonisation – at installation and beyond.