environmentally friendly solar scorecard

5 solar shopping tips for environmentalists

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Generating electricity with your own rooftop solar panel system is one of the most effective ways to reduce your personal carbon footprint. In fact, the average solar panel system can help offset three to four tons of carbon emissions annually–for perspective, the impact of those carbon reductions is similar to planting more than 100 trees each year!

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However, as with anything that involves a supply chain, transportation, and manufacturing, installing solar equipment does have some environmental consequences. Rest assured, by going solar, you will have a positive impact on the environment no matter what, though there are some additional factors to consider as a solar shopper if you want to go the extra mile from a sustainability perspective. Here are five tips that can help maximize the environmental benefits of your solar panel system:

Tip #1: buy solar equipment from environmentally-friendly companies

When you’re shopping for a solar panel system, you have to choose which type of equipment you want to install–from solar panels to inverters, and from racking to batteries. If you want to ensure your solar panel system is as green as possible, it’s worth considering the sustainability practices of solar equipment manufacturers.

One of the best ways to find the most sustainable solar companies is to use the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) Scorecard. The SVTC is a California-based nonprofit devoted to promoting social and environmental justice within the high-tech industry. Their Solar PV Scorecard analyzes and ranks the sustainability practices of large solar panel manufacturers on a number of factors, like greenhouse gas emission reporting, supply chains, worker safety and rights, the use of conflict minerals, and more. 

In the most recent scorecard (2018-2019), the following manufacturers scored well relative to competitors (i.e. scored above 75, listed highest to lowest):

While this scorecard can be a good indicator of a company’s commitment to sustainability, don’t be quick to discount companies who don’t appear on the scorecard or even those that appear lower on the list. Some manufacturers may not have responded to the survey from SVTC, or do not have the means or processes in place to accurately track factors used in the scorecard ranking. If you’re looking at a company that doesn’t appear in the ranking, also consider doing some research on the manufacturer’s website: there, you can often find additional information about actions specific companies are taking to promote the environmental and societal welfare.

Tip #2: try to cover 100 percent of your electricity needs with solar

Our country continues to generate more and more clean electricity each day. But we still have a lot of work to do: according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 63 percent of our electricity came from fossil fuels in 2019. 

You can reduce your own fossil fuel consumption by using as little electricity from the grid as possible – while there will be times where this is basically unavoidable (like at night), you should look to install a solar panel system that’s capable of generating as close to 100 percent of your overall electricity needs over the course of the year. If your solar panels produce more electricity than you need, the excess will be sent to the electricity grid, allowing you to still have net-zero dirty electricity usage– or even net-negative! 

Sometimes it’s not feasible to install enough solar panels to meet your electricity needs; your roof may be a bit small, or maybe your electricity usage is higher than average. If that’s the case, you can maximize your solar electricity production with high-efficiency solar equipment. It also doesn’t hurt to have an energy audit around the time you go solar – you may find some quick wins for reducing your electricity consumption.

Tip #3: Install a solar battery with self-consumption mode

Just above, when we said it was “unavoidable” to pull electricity from the grid, we mostly meant it – the vast majority of residential solar panel systems are grid-tied so that you can pull power from the grid when the sun isn’t shining. However, installing the right size solar panel system isn’t the only way to limit your use of grid electricity: you can also minimize your fossil-fuel electricity usage by pairing your panels with a solar battery.

Solar batteries are used for a variety of reasons, from providing backup power during grid outages to managing time-of-use electricity rates. If you’re interested in reducing your carbon footprint as much as possible, one solar battery option to consider is self-consumption mode. 

Simply put, a self-consumption solar-plus-storage setup maximizes the amount of solar electricity you use on-site, rather than exporting excess solar electricity to the grid. When your solar panel system generates more electricity than you’re using, that electricity will first go to charge your solar battery. Then, after the sun goes down or at any other time when you need more electricity than what your system is generating, you can pull energy from your solar battery first, and only rely on the grid once the battery runs out of a charge. In many ways, solar-plus-storage setups on self-consumption mode put the power grid in the position of being the tertiary form of backup power.  

Importantly, installing a battery will add to the cost of your solar installation, and it’s not the right move for everyone. To learn more about the pros and cons of installing a solar battery, take a look at this article.

Tip #4: shop local 

Next, when it comes time to choose a solar installer, consider your local options first. Local companies often employ your neighbors or your neighbor’s neighbors; supporting them helps put money directly back into your local economy. And, compared to large, national companies located further away, local installers will emit less carbon transporting their crew and your equipment to your home come installation day. 

When you compare quotes on EnergySage, you’ll be able to see the proximity in miles from each installer’s local office to your property. 

Tip #5: recycle your solar equipment

Fortunately, solar panel systems produce electricity for 25+ years, so it’ll be some time before you have to recycle your equipment. However, it never hurts to be prepared! 

Most materials used in solar panel systems can be recycled, including glass, aluminum, copper, and more. But unfortunately, unlike Europe, the United States government has not yet instituted solar panel recycling regulations to mandate solar panel recycling. This is likely to change in the near future as more solar panel systems begin to retire, and many groups–including the Solar Energy Industries Association–are actively working to implement and standardize PV recycling. 

Despite the lack of nationwide regulations regarding solar panel recycling in the U.S., those who need to find a solution today aren’t out of luck. There are some devoted solar recycling companies, like Recycle PV, which help homeowners and companies recycle or repurpose old or defective solar equipment. 

In lieu of national PV recycling regulations, many manufacturers also offer solutions for customers using their products. For example, both First Solar and SunPower partner directly with recycling groups and offer an easy way for their customers to return old solar panels for recycling.

Find an environmentally-friendly solar solution on EnergySage

Even without following the above recommendations, you can be sure that going solar will be an environmental improvement over the status-quo – so what are you waiting for? On the EnergySage Marketplace, you can compare up to seven custom solar quotes from local installers online. Each solar quote will include an estimate of carbon emission reductions for the lifespan of the system, as well as information about the solar installer, proposed solar equipment, and more.

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