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Keeping the Solar Industry Honest

published: 2012-09-11 15:58

By D.A. Barber

Keeping the solar - as well as the entire renewable energy industry - honest is always good for business. There is a move to make green energy companies even greener that could result in making solar energy actually cheaper. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) released a Solar Industry Commitment document on March 21, 2012, that promotes the implementation of environmental and social responsibility standards throughout the solar industry.

Meanwhile, the goal of the new Industrial Energy Efficiency Coalition launched in March 2012 is to encourage manufacturers to implement energy-efficiency strategies to boost their productivity and sustainability.

The Solar Commitment

On March 21, 2012, the U.S.-based Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) released the Solar Industry Commitment to Environmental and Social Responsibility, a “Solar Commitment” document that promotes the implementation of environmental and social responsibility standards throughout the solar industry. Established in 1974, SEIA is a national solar trade association with about 1,100 member companies. SEIA’s Solar Commitment is based upon the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition's Code of Conduct, which was established in 2004 to improve social, economic, and environmental conditions in the global electronics supply chain through use of a standardized code of conduct. As the electronic industry has done in the past, SEIA is urging companies throughout the solar supply chain to adopt the sustainability provisions on a voluntary basis in the areas of labor, ethics, health and safety, environmental responsibility, human rights and management systems.

The basis for the Solar Commitment began in 2010 with the creation of the SEIA Environment, Health & Safety Committee which gathered industry representatives from almost every part of the global solar supply chain. The founding companies, including Dow Solar, SunPower, Suntech, Trina Solar and Yingli Solar, have already endorsed the Solar Commitment and are currently working to develop a governance model and accountability system that addresses a wide range of industry concerns, including installer safety, fire safety, building codes, and product standards.

One Solar Commitment concern considered pressing to the solar industry is PV recycling. SEIA states:

 “Participants should actively work to reduce the consumption of natural resources including raw materials, water, and energy taking into consideration the entire product life-cycle from raw material sourcing through end-of-life. Scrap materials and end of life products should be reused or recycled through public or private programs. Key environmental impacts of manufacturing processes, product technology or key business operations should be identified and appropriate controls should be used to minimize these impacts including tracking water use, energy use, and related greenhouse gas emissions, while maximizing energy efficiency throughout business operations. Participants should make available to relevant stakeholders information on all of these processes and activities”.

Promoting Efficiency Concerns

U.S.industry uses more energy than residential, commercial and transportation. In fact, industrial users in the U.S. would actually take second place behind transportation if they didn’t waste so much energy, according to data available from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. U.S. industries consume one third of the country's energy but waste nearly 25 percent of their total energy they use. And such waste makes the gap for renewable energy to fill even wider.

This is one reason for the increasingly aggressive push for smart-grid technology and the goal of the new Industrial Energy Efficiency Coalition (IEEC) launched in March 2012 to encourage U.S. manufacturers to implement energy-efficiency strategies to boost their productivity and sustainability. According to the IEEC, the decisions being made today “do not adequately address energy savings opportunities in the industrial sector.”

The IEEC was founded as an alliance of industrial controls and automation suppliers for “advocating for new federal policies that encourage manufacturers to implement energy efficiency strategies to boost productivity and sustainability”. The IEEC wants to leverage its members’ collective knowledge, best practices and technologies to ensure efficient use of electricity by U.S. industry. Those IEEC members include ABB, Eaton, GE Energy’s Industrial Solutions business, Rockwell Automation, Schneider Electric, and Siemens – companies that currently supply an estimated 75 percent of the automated controls U.S. companies currently buy and use.

Promoting Smart Grids and Efficiency

The inconsistency for evaluating energy-efficiency programs in the individual U.S. states has prompted more examination of these programs, as well as a call for the creation of a national standard.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) released the results of a national survey examining these practices in February 2012. The National Survey of State Policies and Practices for the Evaluation of Ratepayer-Funded Energy Efficiency Programs confirmed a widening diversity in these state policies but concluded that the differences did not change the bottom line that energy efficiency programs remain cost-effective.

Another ACEEE study, Saving Energy Cost-Effectively: A National Review of the Cost of Energy Saved Through Utility-Sector Energy Efficiency Programs, evaluated states with ratepayer-funded energy efficiency programs and found that the cost to utilities only ranged from 1.6 to 3.3 cents per kWh, which they concluded was far cheaper than the roughly 6 to 14 cents per kWh of building any new electric power sources.

In January 2012, the U.S. White House issued a “call-to-action” by creating the "Green Button" initiative to make easy-to-understand data about their energy use accessible to customers via the internet. On March 22, 2012, nine more utilities announced they had joined the program, bringing to more than 30 million U.S. households that will have access to their own energy data by “clicking” the online "Green Button."  Dozens of non-utility companies have also sent letters of support for the project, including Google, BT, Intel, Verizon, The Climate Group, Johnson Controls, GE Energy, and Kleiner Perkins.

Green Button’s common technical standard was developed as a public-private partnership through the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology and the initiative’s goal is to reduce waste and energy bills by providing consumers with secure information about how they are actually using energy in their homes and businesses. There are also web and smartphone applications to help consumers choose the most economical rate plan; provide information on how to size and finance rooftop PV panels; and virtual energy audit software.


What is interesting is that sometimes these types of promotional moves, whether driven by government, private industry or non-profit industry groups, do a lot to stimulate new techology markets even if they come about for different reasons.

Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said that the release of SEIA's Solar Commitment “marks an important, proactive step toward a sustainable future for solar."

As the electronic industry member companies did before them, the SEIA's Solar Commitment is an effort to extend their influence and create better social and environmental conditions throughout the extensive solar supply chain networks and stakeholders.

This commitment even includes implementing new interactive grid technologies that provide consumers more control over energy consumption. But the Industrial Energy Efficiency Coalition’s push for these grid control technologies in the U.S. has been met with skepticism since all of IEEC’s founding member companies including, ABB, Eaton, GE, Rockwell Automation, Schneider Electric and Siemens, specialize in manufacturing 75 percent of the technologies the coalition is promoting to improve energy efficiency.

But even if IEEC is motivated by the pursuit for new business, their promotion of efficiency is still worth pursuing if you look at the real need for energy efficiency among U.S. industries.

In both cases, the capital intensive products needed to advance innovative renewable energy and smart grid technologies are viewed by many other companies as a significant risk because they are considered too costly. Those companies and utilities unwilling to take a chance on the next-generation energy technology sometimes need the type of “incentives” that can be brought on through very public campaigns such as SEIA's Solar Commitment and the White House Green Button initiative. This can be seen to have happened over the years with the establishment Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition's Code of Conduct.

Even if these various campaigns are strictly a public relations move by segments of the industry that are simply interested in marketing their own products and services, if the public views these energy companies as taking this responsibility seriously it can go a long way in advancing improved technologies and creating acceptance of the renewable industry as a whole. And as acceptance grows, so does the need for these improved technologies.  

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