‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well’ - it’s a saying that has always resonated with me. Someone in my child hood said it to me, and it stuck, for better or worse. If I’m valeting my car, or sorting out the cupboard under the stairs (otherwise known as the dumping ground), I find myself unable to do it by halves. It’s probably the reason I put it off for so long, but at least when I do it, I do it thoroughly. I just can’t bear looking at it (the car or the cupboard) knowing that there’s that little corner behind the tool box or under the passenger seat that I neglected. No one else knows, but I do.
By the same kind of compulsion, if I were to invest a large chunk of money into installing solar panels on the roof of my home, I’d want to know that the company that sold me the bright shiny panels, that are doing me and the planet so much good, don’t have any dirty secrets swept under the carpet. It’s me who has to confront them everyday for the next 25 years after all.
But why should I care so much? I’m already doing more than most. I’m reducing my monthly bills (good for me and my family), I’m committing to renewable energy (good for the solar industry) and I’m greening up my lifestyle (good for the planet) My conscience should be clear. Shouldn’t it?
We may or may not apply the same kind of ethical criteria when we buy a fridge or a PC, but there seems something hypocritical about buying solar panels that have a shady past. Clean energy should mean clean energy, from A through to Z.
So, what can you do? You can ensure your installers are local, you can demand that the outsourced panel fitters don’t travel hundreds of miles to get to you, you can find out during your solar consultation exactly where the solar panels and components come from, and, ultimately you can choose whether you want to pay for British, European or Chinese made domestic PV. You might ask ‘What’s so terrible about Chinese solar panels?’ China lack even rudimentary laws protecting the environmental from the dumping of toxic waste, and their human rights and workers rights leave little to be desired. Buying British means that your solar panels have been manufactured under the strict environmental rules and regulations that apply here. Then there’s the air miles to consider.
But here’s the rub, the difference in price could make or break the deal.
The Chinese solar industry is a red hot topic right now, affecting the choices of many a green minded consumer. With the solar trade war between China and the US now reaching Europe the clean tech battle has gone global.
This year, the US imposed duties on Chinese made imports of solar panels and components which have been sold in the States at below cost value. The European Commission have recently begun an investigation into allegations of dumping made by 20 leading euro green tech companies. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/sep/06/eu-china-solar-panels-trade-war?newsfeed=true.
To a certain extent this all seems fair enough. But China’s complaint is that these duties could undermine the development of the solar industry and freeze one of China’s major areas of growth. And China is biting back. Chinese government led investigations are underway on the imports of solar polysilicon from Korean and US solar companies.
But what does all this mean for the consumer? After all, we buy mobile phones and cutting edge technology that’s manufactured in China. Is this not just the natural evolution of a global free market economy? In the end, capitalism is as capitalism does, and all business, however green and ethical its credentials, has one eye firmly on the bottom line. The bright side of the story is that China’ s emergence into the European and US solar markets has driven down the cost of installation for Joe public and consequently aided the growth of the solar industry.
Many reputable UK solar installers now source solar PV from China but have imposed their own regulations. Southern Solar, who trade with Chinese company Trina have researched the company’s manufacturing procedures and track record and they tick the right ethical boxes. So, if you ask the questions and do your home work, you can make an educated decision when you invest in solar energy, and still feel comfortable with your choice long term.
Tara Gould is a freelance writer specialising in renewable energy, the environment, and ethical business