SVTC Solar Scorecard: A Great Idea Badly Executed

svtc logo and pollution

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition should be a really useful tool for solar buyers. Unfortunately it isn’t.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, or SVTC to its friends, is an organisation that has been working hard for over 32 years to protect this life encrusted blob of nickel and iron spinning in space that we call Earth.

SVTC campaigns to promote both safe environmental practices and ethical behavior in high tech industries.  Each year since 2009 they have released a report called the SVTC Solar Scorecard that ranks solar panel manufacturers on both their environmental sustainability and ethical behavior.

I think this is a great idea because most people who install rooftop solar aren’t just doing it to save money on their electricity bills. Sure, a healthy return on their investment is what seals the deal, but that warm glow of smugness that comes from being on the right side of history is a wonderful bonus for many solar owners.

However if the solar panels you buy are made in a far flung factory that trashes the environment and screws its workers, that takes off some of the shine.  Solar panel manufacture involves some dangerous chemicals and there will always be a temptation to cut costs by improperly storing or disposing of them and if a spill occurs it can result in serious environmental harm.

So, in theory, a project like SVTC’s which ranks manufacturers by their environmental and social responsibility should be a key metric that environmentally conscious solar buyers use when choosing a panel manufacturer.

Unfortunately, in practice, due to some fundamental flaws in their execution, the SVTC solar scorecard is not very useful at all.

While it may do an okay job of indicating which are among the best companies, it is useless at showing which are the worst.  As a result, I’m afraid I’m going to have to give it a rating of 2 on the official SolarQuotes® Rating Scale used for rating rating systems, which corresponds to Fairly Piss Poor Overall1.

But there is some good news. With a few simple tweaks to their system, SVTC could rocket their Solar Scorecard all the way up to 5/5. If you want to avoid 2,000 words of bitching and get straight to the constructive stuff, you will find those suggested tweaks in the last 4 paragraphs. Otherwise read on to discover why the current process is so flawed.

Problems With The SVTC Solar Scorecard

SVTC’s says the purpose of their Solar Scorecards are to help people choose solar panel manufacturers with high environmental and worker safety standards.  They state:

“The Scorecard reveals how companies perform on SVTC’s sustainability and social justice benchmarks to ensure that PV manufacturers protect workers, communities, and the environment.”

The trouble with this statement is, it’s not true.  Because of the way the report is put together it is about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

While the companies with higher rankings probably are doing fairly well with regard to environmental sustainability and worker safety, we can’t be certain they are actually the best.  And once you start getting lower on the scorecard it becomes a real crap shoot.  And whether you interpret the phrase “crap shoot” as a game of chance or actual pieces of crap being shot through the air, it doesn’t really matter because the SVTC Solar Scorecard results in plenty of solar companies getting covered in shit through no fault of their own.

No Information Is Not A Zero!

The main reason why the Solar Scorecard fails at its job is because if a company doesn’t respond to SVTC’s survey, or to part of the survey, then they don’t get a “not applicable” or “unknown” in the categories they don’t respond to, instead they get a zero.  Because of this, it is possible for a company that is doing well with regard to environmental sustainability and social responsibility to receive the same score as one that is dedicated to destroying the environment and enslaving humanity.

Obviously this is not a useful way to construct a rating system.  I personally also find it unethical.  If someone decided, simply due to a lack of information, that you belonged in the despicable weasel category and then published reports read by thousands of people saying you are in the despicable weasel category, then ethical is not how I would describe that person’s behavior.

Jinko Solar’s Rating Shoots Upwards! – By Bothering To Answer

Jinko Solar became the world’s largest solar manufacturer in 2016 by producing around 6.5 or more gigawatts of panels.  It would be great if people had access to accurate reports they could compare across time to see if this huge company was continuously improving on sustainability and social responsibility, or if it had obtained its number one position at the cost of becoming a giant prick.  Unfortunately, as far as SVTC’s Solar Scorecard is concerned, accurate information can go punch a wallaroo in the ballsack.

In 2011:

Jinko 2011

and 2012:

Jinko 2012

Jinko Solar received a score of zero out of 100 from SVTC.

My god!  What a rotten company they must have been!  I can only guess their factories must have been filthy, coal powered, Victorian horrors, spewing toxic chemicals every which way, and employing only child laborers at slave wages.

SVTC then changed their format in 2013:

Jinko 2013

And gave Jinko a whole a whole 9 points.  Four out of 20 for recycling and 5 out of 5 for Biodiversity for not harming:

“…endangered, threatened, or special concern species in the US from 2011 to 2013.”

So Jinko could have been massacring pandas and using their skins to make solar panels and still gotten 5 out of 5 for biodiversity because they don’t manufacture in the United States.

In 2014 they only got 7 points:

Jinko 2014

A score so low SVTC dumped them in a group called laggards.

But then in 2015 a miracle occurred!  Jinko Solar suddenly got a score of 53 out of 100!

Jinko 2015

An increase of 46 points!  How did this wondrous event occur?  Was the CEO of Jinko Solar visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve who convinced him to change his ways?  Or did the workers unite and over throw their capitalist oppressors to create a worker’s paradise of peace and love?2  Or did they have to change their ways because Godzilla was attracted to their radioactive runoff and kept attacking their factories3?

As hard as it may be to believe, none of those things happened.  The big change was simply that Jinko finally managed to respond to the SVTC survey and provide them with some answers.  For all we know absolutely nothing changed in reality.  Jinko Solar may have gone backwards on environmental sustainability and social responsibility that year, but we wouldn’t know about it because apparently just providing some answers is enough to get a decent score.

But in 5 categories worth a total of 30 points they received a zero.  Maybe they did really badly in those areas or maybe they simply didn’t provide answers for them and their score actually should have been a lot better.  We just don’t know thanks to SVTC’s horrible scoring system.

They Also Use Information From Other Sources…

SVTC has stated they also use information from other sources:

“In 2012 we began scoring companies based both on the survey and on information available on company websites and from publicly available sources (which we used to answer the survey questions). This methodology, also used in 2013 and 2015, provides a broader picture of industry practices.”

That must have been where they got Jinko’s score of 9 in 2013 and presumably 7 in 2014.  Clearly, from Jinko’s huge leap in 2015, it is replying to their survey that provides the bulk of scores.

Only Companies That Reply To SVTC’s Survey Get Good Results

Only 13 out of 40 major companies responded to their 2015 survey, and SVTC freely admit to this:

“Thirteen companies representing 35.8% of the PV module market share responded to the 2015 SVTC survey. This included six of top ten PV module manufacturers. This is an increase from the 25.2 % in 2014. “

But they still have the unmitigated gall4 to report on all 40 as if they had good information and weren’t simply handing out zeros all over the place because companies didn’t respond.  An act so low it could put on a top hat and walk under a snake.

It’s not as if they aren’t aware the SVTC Solar Scorecard should be called “SVTC’s How Well Some Companies Responded To Our Survey Scorecard,” as they freely admit:

“Solarworld is the only company that has responded to the Solar Scorecard every year since 2010. Subsequently, SolarWorld also has the highest average score over six years.”

They appear to show no awareness they have just admitted their scorecard is about as objective as the Spanish Inquisition.  My independently drawn conclusion from this is the SVTC Solar Scorecard is a rating system that can’t be trusted.

SVTC Ignores Attempts To Give Them Information

While filling in their survey is obviously the only way to get a good score, good luck getting SVTC to actually let you fill it in.  Not only have they not asked at least one large manufacturer to complete their survey, but they also ignored repeated attempts to give them information.

So not only will SVTC give you a lousy score if you don’t do their survey, they may not even let you do it by ignoring requests to participate.

On their website, SVTC states:

“Hanwha SolarOne has the second lowest five-year average score. These low scores mean that the companies did not respond to the survey or to SVTC’s request that they post information on their websites.”

But a representative from Hanwha Q CELLS Australia, told SolarQuotes :

“…regarding the SVTC stuff.  These guys are really frustrating to deal with due to their lack of response to my emails. ”

“We have made enquiries internally (throughout our global network) and there does not appear to be any knowledge of a request being received from SVTC.”

“Locally, we have made several attempts this year alone to contact SVTC and ask what information they require.  We have received no response.  We would very much like the opportunity to submit documented responses to the Survey, but we are not being given the opportunity.”

So what does Hanwha Q CELLS have to do to get SVTC to accept their information?  Take them into a dark alley and get down on their knees and beg?

I don’t know if Hanwha Q CELLS experience is typical or if SVTC just has something against them personally, but it doesn’t matter if Hanwha Q CELLS blew up SVTC’s dog with a cluster bomb5, they need a transparent, traceable procedure for all companies to both receive and respond to their surveys.

We’ve had the internet for at least months now in Queensland.  They should consider using that.

High Scores Don’t Necessarily Mean Much

Unfortunately, a lot of the time when SVTC gives a high score in a category it doesn’t mean a lot.

For example, let’s say your will is strong when it comes to cutting carbon emissions.  You want to buy solar panels to reduce your emissions and you want to reward companies with low emissions by buying their products.  So you might think you would be doing a good thing by looking at the Solar Scorecard and selecting a company that gets 5 out of 5 for “Energy and Greenhouse Gases”.

Unfortunately, to get a high score the only thing that is necessary is for a company to report their emissions to both SVTC and a third party.  Those emissions don’t actually have to be low6 so you may not be achieving a lot by relying on those scores.

The same goes for many other categories where high results are given for reporting performance, but not necessarily having good performance.

What SVTC Needs To Do

At the bottom of their last three Solar Scorecards is the following statement in bold type:

Use this scorecard to help choose a manufacturer that is committed to high environmental and worker safety standards for PV module manufacturing.

This statement is bullshit because their results don’t indicate which companies have high environmental and worker safety standards, they mostly just show who responded to their survey.

SVTC either needs to realize their Solar Scorecard is about as useful as large nuns on a bull and stop or they need to change the way they collect and present information. In the spirit of being constructive, here are my suggestions.

They Need To Be Transparent About Transparency

If a company clearly reports what they are doing, then their transparency is good, even though what they are doing may not be.  If the scorecard is only reporting on companies’ transparency and not actual performance in a particular category, then SVTC needs to make that clear.  Greenhouse gas emissions transparency and actual greenhouse gas emissions are definitely not the same thing, but plenty of people will assume they are, so the difference needs to be made explicit.

If their report is mostly just going to be about transparency, then they need to make it clear that’s what they are doing and call it something like the “SVTC Solar Transparency Scorecard”.

They Need To Try Harder To Get The Information

Only 13 out of 40 major companies responded to their survey in 2015.  That number sucks.

Either:

  • solar companies are receiving the survey, then tossing it in the trash.
  • the survey is not finding its way to the correct person in the solar company.
  • solar companies (like Hanwha Q CELLS) really want to respond, but can’t get a response from SVTC

A solution to this is:

  • A regularly monitored web portal where the companies can answer the survey. To be sure it is an official response, you can make the submitter confirm the submission from a verified company email address.
  • Use people well connected in the solar industry to get the survey to the right people in each company. All we did to get our response from Q-Cells was call the number of their Australian Office and ask a few questions.
  • Document all attempts to contact each company on a public webpage so we can see how hard you’ve tried to contact each company, who you contacted and their response.

Those simple steps should provide a much better dataset to work with.

They Need To Present The Information Transparently

It is simply not valid to rank companies on environmental and social responsibility after handing out zeros for categories which lack information.

What they could instead do is present the information they have in three categories:

  1. Companies that responded to their survey in full:  The scores of those in this category could be reasonably compared with each other, though SVTC should make it clear companies could have lied on the survey.
  2. Companies that either didn’t respond to the survey in full or which didn’t respond at all, but they have good information from other sources:  These could be given a weighted overall score based on the information available.  In other words, none of this giving zero bullshit if they don’t have information in a category.  These scores could be compared with those in the first category, but SVTC should make it clear they are less confident about their overall scores.
  3. If they have limited information on a company they can present it, but not make any attempt to give an overall rating from partial information, as it is not possible for it to be accurate.

The 2016 SVTC Solar Scorecard isn’t out yet so they still have a little time to get things right. It won’t take much to get a really useful scorecard that consumers can rely on, and here at SolarQuotes we would be happy to help in any way we can.

Let’s hope they fix it, because the concept is brilliant, let down by flawed execution.

Footnotes

  1. 1 = Piss Poor,  5 = Bloody Marvellous.
  2. Again.
  3. Don’t try and tell me Godzilla only attacks Japan.  He’s not ethnocentric.
  4. Balls
  5. Hanwha is a huge Korean company that started in 1952 as an explosives manufacturer.  Part of the company currently makes bombs.
  6. If you are looking for solar panels with low embodied emissions, your best bet is probably to go with the few producers still in Europe as both the silicon for the solar cells and the aluminium for the frames are likely to have been produced using Norwegian hydroelectricity.  The next cleanest will probably be North American.  Chinese panels are still pretty dirty as far as embodied emissions go, but they are getting cleaner everyday.  Because they are aware they will die if they don’t.
About Ronald Brakels

Many years ago now, Ronald Brakels was born in Toowoomba. He first rose to international prominence when his township took up a collection to send him to Japan, which was the furthest they could manage with the money they raised. He became passionately interested in environmental matters upon his return to Australia when the local Mayor met him at the airport and explained it was far too dangerous for him to return to Toowoomba on account of climate change and mutant attack goats. Ronald then moved to a property in the Adelaide Hills where he now lives with his horse, Tonto 23.

Comments

  1. What drives them as an organisation? The first thing that comes to mind with all environmental groups, is their financial budget – income and outgoings. Can you get that somehow?

  2. Howard Patrick says

    Hanwha – the company working with the company 1366 which has developed a new way of manufacturing silicon solar cells; a process which avoids sawing ignots and claims to do so with very substantial cost and energy savings.

    What score Hanwha Q Cells gets in the 2016 SVTC Solar Scorecard should be a litmus test for a seemingly questionable organization

  3. While clearly there is room for improvement, the problems is how to get companies to provide reliable information in the absence of government compulsion, and the answer is market compulsion. The “no info provided equals low scores” means there becomes a commercial incentive to provide the information if you think your company will get a good score. If you don’t think you will get a good score you might just choose not to respond. Sure there will be SNAFU’s but in the absence of government compulsion this is better than no ranking system. Having worked in an environmetnal organisation with limited resource which prepared rankings of products I know that while no system is perfect, a lot of effort is made to get companies to respond but there can be issues on both sides ie in the ranking organisation, or in the company not repsonding/not getting its info included. If the company really wants to get there info into consideration I’m sure they can find a way eg getting a representative to attend the offices of the ranking organisation with an official response in hard copy and formally deliver it.

    • Hi Paul,

      Two problems:

      1) It’s a very adversarial position to take. Dale Carnegie would argue that is a really bad way to make friends or influence PV manufacturers.
      2) It is clearly not working. See the example of Q CELLS in the post. They can’t get hold of SVTC despite trying hard.

      I simply don’t believe SVTC try very hard to get the results – especially from companies that they suspect are ‘bad eggs’. They can prove me wrong by sharing all the efforts they make to contact each company and the responses as suggested in the post.

      Hence the simple suggestions in the post to make their survey much more effective.

      Cheers,

      Finn

  4. An adversarial position is not of itself a problem. It is often the means required to get a solution after softer approaches have failed.
    Adversarial positions are often the only way of getting things done.
    Women did not win the vote despite years of polite lobbying. In the US they got it after they were arrested and force fed after going on hunger strikes. In the UK it was after enormous marches and some civil disobedience.
    The US and Australian governments ended the Vietnam war only after there were enormous protest marches and civil disobedience.
    I am not saying that there is not room for improvement.
    I find it difficult to believe that Q Cells can not send a representative tp the offices of SVTC with a hard copy of the information needed after pre-arranging an appointment with the person coordinating the survey. I am taking what they have told you with a grain of salt. I don’t have the same faith in corporations doing the right thing and being entirely honest that you seem to have.

    Q Cells could contact the senior staff and board members individually if they feel aggrieved. http://svtc.org/about-us/staff/ I am sure Q celss has the resources to find direct contact details for at least some of these people.
    Why not send the link to the Q Celss people to help them get started with getting their information into the surve?

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