Five solar shopping tips for environmentalists

environmentally friendly solar scorecard

Generating electricity with your rooftop solar panel system is one of the most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint. 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!

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 positively impact the environment no matter what. However, 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:

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When shopping for a solar panel system, you must 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 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 several 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 that 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 to track factors used in the scorecard ranking accurately. Consider researching the manufacturer's website if you're looking at a company that doesn't appear in the order. You can often find additional information about specific companies' actions to promote environmental and societal welfare there.

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 60 percent of our electricity came from fossil fuels in 2020.

You can reduce your fossil fuel consumption by using as little electricity from the grid as possible. While there will be times when this is 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 year. Suppose your solar panels produce more electricity than you need. In that case, the excess will be sent to the electricity grid, allowing you still to 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 so, you can maximize your solar electricity production with high-efficiency solar equipment. It also doesn't hurt to have an energy audit when you go solar – you may find some quick wins for reducing your electricity consumption.

Just above, when we said it was "unavoidable" to pull electricity from the grid, we mostly meant it – most residential solar panel systems are grid-tied so that you can draw 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 various reasons, from 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 solar electricity you use onsite 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 charge. In many ways, solar-plus-storage setups in self-consumption mode put the power grid as the tertiary form of backup power.

Significantly, installing a battery will add to the cost of your solar installation, and it's not the right move for everyone. Check out this article to learn more about the pros and cons of installing a solar battery.

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.

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 will likely change soon 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. Some devoted solar recycling companies, like Recycle PV, help homeowners and companies recycle or repurpose old or defective solar equipment.

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

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 section will include an estimate of carbon emission reductions for the system's lifespan and information about the solar installer, proposed solar equipment, and more.

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