How to Spot a Sustainable Solar Company

Rebecca Graham

Last Updated: August 21st, 2023

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As a prospective solar customer, you're likely enthusiastic about contributing to a cleaner planet. 

However, it's vital to recognize that the sustainability journey in every industry, including solar, is ongoing. While intentions are commendable, there's always room for improvement in the following areas:

  • waste production,
  • habitat disruption,
  • non-renewable resource depletion, and
  • carbon emissions. 

In this article, we'll delve into how you can identify solar installers who go the extra mile for sustainability, ensuring that your switch to solar power truly aligns with your eco-friendly priorities.

Table of Contents: 

Panel recycling     
Land-use innovation     
Multi-family housing     
Office operations 

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Sustainable companies recognize returns on sustainability investments

Hint: You don't need to search for a purely altruistic company here. Sustainability can yield economic success for local and national providers alike. 

Sustainability isn't just about being eco-friendly — it also makes business sense.

Sustainable initiatives can lead to all sorts of benefits, such as the following:

  • cost savings — think reduced utility bills at corporate headquarters,
  • increased revenue — gaining an edge by attracting environmentally conscious customers like yourself,
  • boosted employee morale — when employees know their employer feels a responsibility to the planet, and
  • reduced risks for companies — because regulations aren't being violated.  

As solar companies embrace sustainable practices alongside their already-sustainable product, they position themselves for long-term success in an increasingly environmentally and socially conscious market. 

In other words: look for a solar company that's doing well and doing good. 

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Sustainable companies collaborate with strategic partners

Individual green efforts don't exist in a vacuum, and neither do organizational efforts.

Therefore, look for companies both bold enough to make strides in their own right and humble enough to accept coaching and collaboration from other parties already doing the work (and maybe even two steps ahead). 

Whether it's solar-specific partnerships or partnerships outside of the industry, collaboration has the potential to provide more comprehensive, holistic, long-term solutions. 

Look for solar installers that practice collaboration with other parties such as sustainability consultants, energy storage firms, and eco-friendly manufacturers.

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Sustainable companies donate to sustainability-focused organizations

As you well know, sustainability goes beyond solar and our planet is in dire need of comprehensive improvements that span industries, countries, and continents.

Consider the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals

  1. No poverty
  2. Zero hunger
  3. Good health and well-being
  4. Quality education
  5. Gender equality
  6. Clean water and sanitation
  7. Affordable and clean energy
  8. Decent work and economic growth
  9. Industry, innovation, and infrastructure
  10. Reduced inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on land
  16. Peace, justice, and strong institutions
  17. Partnerships for the goals

All of these goals are worthy of awareness, advocacy, and funding, so there's no one right answer here. 

A company's commitment to philanthropy reflects its alignment with sustainable values. Seek out a solar company that aligns itself with one or more of the SDGs and feel good about your investment in renewable energy and additional causes that matter. 

For example, SolarSesame has supported a number of organizations with sustainability initiatives, including the Rainforest Foundation US, The Future Forest Company, TIST tree planting initiatives, the Clean Air Task Force, and Carbon 180.

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Sustainable companies incorporate transparent reporting

ESG (environmental, social, and governance) initiatives and reports answer to some of the social pressure for companies to report on carbon emissions and other environmental impact indicators. They can provide stakeholders with a comprehensive understanding of their commitment to sustainability, while also fostering transparency, accountability, and continuous improvement.

But ESG is controversial because of some very valid critiques by sustainability experts, including the following:

  • It can distract from real problems at hand and make companies look undeservedly and deceptively good (ie greenwashing). 
  • It is too difficult to implement among multiple stakeholders with differing motives.
  • ESG data is often procured using different weighting and overall methodology across companies and across industries, so the scores are impractical to both measure and compare.
  • Even when ESG is accurately measured, it is difficult to prove a direct and incontrovertible correlation with financial detriment or success. (For an in-depth explanation, see McKinsey Quarterly's analysis Does ESG really matter—and why?)

We're not going to argue that ESG is perfect.

But however flawed it may be, it does provide a degree of internal opportunity and external pressure to take inventory and set goals for improvement. And measurements can be improved over time; for example, things are trending toward consolidation of ESG reporting and disclosure frameworks. 

While ESG reports are not always an objective indicator of a company's impact, they are a good start. 

Consider a solar company that reports on its efforts in one or more of the following areas: 

  • Clean energy generated 
  • Carbon emissions generated
  • Water consumption
  • Raw materials sourcing
  • Ecological impacts of projects on local communities 
  • Research and development investments 
  • Recycling statistics
  • Jobs created 
  • Advocacy efforts to promote clean energy and address regulatory challenges
  • Employee well-being, including diversity and inclusion efforts 

Additionally, clear targets and a path forward for improvement in any area demonstrate a deeper commitment to sustainability. And then, the clincher  — in subsequent months and years, does the company actually hit those milestones or at least show progress toward them? 

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Sustainable companies prioritize ethical procurement

It may feel uncomfortable to think about, but solar panel manufacturing contributes to non-renewable resource depletion via mining and also generates greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) that contribute to climate change.

Yes, solar still produces a net good for the planet, with 18 times less carbon emissions over its lifetime than coal and 13 times less carbon emissions than natural gas. 

Read More: Does Solar Really Make a Difference? 

According to sustainability firm founder Josh Prigge, solar companies can make important distinctions here: "Choose suppliers who prioritize both high-quality silicon for solar cells as well as ethical mining processes," he advises. The less need for petroleum-based plastic polymers in solar cell manufacturing, the better. 

Standout solar panel manufacturer Trina Solar decreased per-module power consumption by 42 percent, water consumption by 53 percent, and GHGs by 62 percent from 2020 to 2022. 

Sustainable procurement can include standalone initiatives or across-the-board improvements, but the best solar companies have an awareness of the environmental impacts of manufacturing and select manufacturers accordingly.

For example, Solar SME partners with suppliers who prioritize responsible manufacturing. One of its suppliers is solar battery manufacturer Panasonic, which is invested in new approaches to minimizing the finite-resource cobalt in batteries as well as exploring cobalt reclamation in decommissioned batteries.

And SunPower has adopted its own set of Supplier Sustainability Guidelines based on the Solar Energies Industry Association's (SEIA) Solar Commitment. 

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Sustainable companies support solar panel recycling

Just as small amounts of cobalt can potentially be reused from solar batteries, solar panels contain glass, plastic, and aluminum that can all be reclaimed. Implementing an effective global solar recycling scheme could recover raw materials worth $450 million by 2030. 

Separating the individual materials requires advanced machinery and processes — and money.

In fact, recycling a panel costs $20 to $30 while disposal can be as low as $1 to $2. So it makes sense that a lot of great solar companies still haven't jumped on the recycling train. 

When you find one, give it some serious consideration. 

First Solar has taken the lead with solar panel recycling, prioritizing glass, plastic, and aluminum reclamation in its panel takeback program. It boasts a 90 percent plus recovery of module materials for reuse and is the only solar manufacturer with global in-house PV recycling capabilities. 

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Sustainable companies encourage full-lifetime panel use

78 million tons. 

That's how much solar panel waste there will be (at least) by the year 2050, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Further research states that these numbers will be far more significant and emerge far sooner. 

When people replace their systems even though the existing ones still produce energy effectively, the waste problem is amplified.

It's understandable that consumers want the newest and best products, including solar. But solar's impressive energy payback period of around four years generally assumes energy production during the system's entire life expectancy of 30 years. 

Look for solar companies that emphasize the longevity of their products, offering extended workmanship warranties, energy production guarantees, and inclusive maintenance options.

By showcasing the value of panels throughout their lifetime and implementing warranties and guarantees that support their claims, these companies reduce unnecessary replacements and waste.

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Sustainable companies reduce transportation emissions

Consider solar companies that prioritize local manufacturing and use electric vehicles for transportation, minimizing the GHGs emitted from fossil fuel-powered vehicles. 

SunPower, in its latest ESG Report, has described its commitment to convert at least 90 percent of its vehicle fleet to electric and hybrid vehicles by 2030 and has begun that process. SunPower’s initiative contributes to its plan to eventually achieve net zero carbon emissions for U.S. warehouse shipments to home delivery. 

While SunPower transparently explains that it would like to be beyond its 5 percent benchmark so far, progress is limited by the current number of vehicles suitable for operations, it continues to partner with vehicle manufacturers to renew expiring leases with electric or hybrid vehicles. 

We're seeing more and more solar companies follow suit and take steps to decrease transportation-related emissions, including the following implementations by some of our solar partners: 

  • Shinnova Home and Solar incorporates smaller and more fuel-efficient trucks. 
  • Comet Energy has field employees meet in a central location to the job and carpool. 
  • Entrust Solar limits company travel whenever possible by using algorithms to optimize appointment times based on location. 
  • Solar Power of Oklahoma has electric vehicle chargers onsite to encourage EV use by employees. 

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Sustainable companies explore innovative land use

Solar companies can set themselves apart as innovators by implementing solar projects in non-conventional areas, such as shopping malls, parking lots, and water reservoirs. These types of installations maximize land use without compromising sustainability.

While not all residential solar installers do commercial projects, having a non-traditional project like the above in their portfolio can be a great sign of maximum sustainability awareness. 

A study co-led by sustainability researcher Joshua Pearce found that floating solar panels (“floatovoltaics”) could not only generate electricity but also fund water conservation in the drought-stricken United States: The case study of Lake Mead found that if 10 percent of the lake were covered with foam-backed, flexible surface-mounted solar panels, there would be enough water conserved and electricity generated to service both Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada. 

There is so much opportunity for thinking and working outside of the box here. 

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Sustainable companies have solar options for multi-family housing 

There are all kinds of factors that have made solar relatively inaccessible to people living in multi-family housing units: 

  • Limited roof space and other structural limitations
  • Technical wiring and metering challenges
  • Zoning and building regulation hurdles
  • Landlord and tenant financial barriers 
  • Split incentives (tenants pay their own utility bills, so landlords are not financially motivated to invest in solar) 

Despite these challenges, solar companies and other organizations are working to make solar more accessible among housing types beyond single-family homes. 

Look for a solar company that works with multifamily housing developers to make new builds compatible with solar. Other solutions include community solar programs — where residents can subscribe to a shared solar installation off-site — or solar leasing arrangements, where a third party owns and operates the solar panels on the building (while tenants benefit from the generated electricity).

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Sustainable companies seek industry recognition

While not a guarantee of superiority, companies that boast awards, certifications, and recognition from industry peers or environmental organizations can stand out from the crowd. 

For example, Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) membership or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) expertise. Best Company’s annual Sustainability Award showcases companies excelling in sustainability within the solar industry and beyond. 

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Sustainable companies evaluate and improve office operations 

Look for solar companies that run a green office space, incorporating energy-efficient lighting, recycling programs, and solar energy systems.

A 2023 Best Company Sustainability Award winner and recently named the Greenest Contractor in the United States by Solar Power World, Cape Fear Solar Systems has a new warehouse facility featuring a large solar array installed on the rooftop — in the shape of an American flag, no less. 

When you work with a sustainable solar installer, you drive sustainability efforts within the industry  

Any good solar company can equip you with a system that will get you up and running with renewable energy. 

But you may as well optimize your investment for the greenest return possible. 

By choosing a solar installer that prioritizes sustainability, you show — with your business — that you value brands propelling the broader movement toward a greener future. 

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