Photovoltaic solar is a green business, but the equipment and facilities needed for each step of the installation process aren’t carbon-neutral by default. Company vehicles often use fossil fuels, solar equipment and its packaging aren’t easily recyclable and unless there are modules on the roof or renewable energy credits in place, a company’s building is likely producing more carbon than it’s preventing.
“It seems like common sense to do green things while you’re doing green work,” said Joel Alder, warehouse manager with New England-based solar installer ReVision Energy. “If you’re here, like me, for a reason and that reason is you want to see a healthier Earth, why would you not try and encompass all the things that try to do that?”
Installers can take relatively easy steps to implement business-level green practices and cut carbon emissions. Replacing facility lighting with LEDs or relying more on natural light, using thermal heat pumps for temperature regulation, installing low-flow plumbing and, of course, installing solar on the roof are all options. But operational green practices can start with something as simple as placing recycling bins in the office.
Electric vehicles and carbon offsets
Company cars are no small investment. Transporting solar hardware requires vehicles with loading space, especially for projects in the commercial and utility markets. ReVision Energy transitioned its vehicle fleet to be more carbon-friendly by using electric-gasoline hybrids, full-electric cars and biodiesel installation trucks.
“When we go out and meet with clients, the first option is to use a battery-electric Chevy Bolt to make that trip with zero emissions because it was just charged by our rooftop solar array at our shop,” said Phil Coupe, co-founder of ReVision Energy. “And if we’re out of Bolts, then the second choice there is the Prius. And when we get into the light-duty commercial vehicles, we’re using things like Sprinter vans because of their fuel efficiency and for everything that’s diesel. These are typically box trucks [so] we are able to get away with 100% biodiesel in the warmer months…then we have to change the blend as we go into the winter months.”
Although electric semi-trucks are currently being tested, it will be some time before they see widespread commercial application. In the meantime, there’s biodiesel, which is manufactured using vegetable oils, animal fats and restaurant grease. The fuel’s properties are similar to petroleum diesel, but it releases about one-fifth of the carbon dioxide when consumed and can be used in many existing diesel engines. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC), there are 307 registered refueling stations for biodiesel in the United States, but they’re not present in every state.
A similar conundrum occurs with electric vehicles. Current electric vehicles are primarily used for commuter purposes, meaning they’re charged mostly at home and can run for about 250 miles on a single charge. Whereas gasoline and diesel refueling infrastructure is established, electric vehicle charging stations are scarcer than gas stations. But they’re expanding rapidly, with about 47,000 in the United States according to the AFDC, equal to about one-quarter of the gas stations present in the country.
For installers and sales crews working in smaller territories or areas with charging stations, electric vehicles under the right conditions can be the economical choice, especially if there’s solar on the roof providing their power. If an electric car purchase or biofuel compatibility isn’t in the cards, carbon offsets are another option.
Certified B Corporation and Ohio-based installer Third Sun Solar doesn’t have a fleet of electric vehicles but instead purchases carbon offsets through a service called TerraPass. Annually, Third Sun pays for 108 metric tons of carbon offsets.
The money spent on offsets is reinvested into carbon reduction programs, like land gas capture and construction of larger renewable energy projects. Third Sun’s technicians and salespeople travel across the entirety of Ohio to install solar, and the offsets the company purchases cover the carbon produced by their work vehicles during those trips. So, while greener vehicle purchases might not be possible for the solar installation company in the Midwest right now, Third Sun is contributing to building greener energy projects on a larger scale.
Refurbish, reuse, recycle
Recycling can apply at all levels of operations, from using reusable cutlery in the lunchroom to finding recycling options for defective solar panels.
ReVision Energy’s commitment to recycling didn’t start overnight. It emerged out of necessity as the company scaled up and increased its number of installations, bringing in more damaged components like modules and inverters. ReVision’s maintenance services yielded more of that hardware as technicians visited aging arrays.
The solution to the component recycling problem came in the form of an electronic waste company based in New Hampshire called Aurum Recovery Group. Aurum Recovery processes a range of electronics and is able to recycle about 85% of solar module hardware. The aluminum frames, some of the wire on the back of the module and the glass are all recyclable and the solar cells are shredded and combined with Aurum’s circuit board mixtures.
Packaging for solar hardware presents its own recycling challenges. Pallets of panels come wrapped in film plastic, and tabs used to separate the modules during shipment are made of No. 2 plastic. The former isn’t a widely recyclable material.
ReVision initially took the film plastic to a regional grocer who processed the material, and later joined a recycling cooperative started by Allagash Brewing Company, a local sustainability-focused brewery whose business has a large intake of film plastic.
The return ReVision sees from scrap metals more than covers the shipping fees for e-waste and time needed to collect and recycle its film and No. 2 plastics.
“[Recycling services are] certainly not easy to find,” ReVision’s Alder said. “It took some time to track it all down. That’s why I like to talk about it. I hope people hear this and realize that there are some resources out there for this kind of stuff, even though it’s not a quick Google search and, ‘bang,’ you know where to get rid of your No. 2 plastic.”
Third Sun is also recycling everything it can. It might be more convenient to dispose of component packaging at jobsites, but Third Sun installers haul it all back to be recycled, and the company donates pallets to people in the community. Some of those pallets were repurposed and used in a project to build benches, tables and sculptures for a local park.
“It’s kind of a pain to keep the pallets and keep the cardboard and bring it all back on the trailer,” said Michelle Greenfield, co-owner of Third Sun Solar. “You’ve got a trailer full of panels going up to North Columbus and then you’ve got to haul all that stuff back. But we do it, it’s just the way we do stuff.”
Computers, cell phones and tablets used in day-to-day operations have narrower and narrower windows of use before they’re outdated, but they aren’t necessarily useless. California installer Solar Optimum started refurbishing those electronics when it came time to replace them. The computers and cell phones are donated to children and families in need through a program at a church local to Glendale where the company is based.
“We’re just doing what we can in the markets we serve with the employees that we have to be better, to be greener, to be positive and to think of the environment,” said Rainier de Ocampo, VP of marketing at Solar Optimum. “Whatever impact we’re making, big or small, it’s as much as we can do and we support it.”
When it comes to recycling programs or finding other purposes for materials or electronics, these installers found success in local or regional resources. It took some extra effort, but it’s keeping a lot of materials out of landfills and ultimately reducing their carbon footprint.
“It’s part of a larger mission. I’m driving down the road right now in Ohio, and unbelievable amounts of garbage and plastic are all over the side of the road. If we’re saying that we’re saving the planet and we want to mitigate climate change, but we’re not doing anything to mitigate plastic use or recycle our materials or offset carbon, then we’re not doing all that we can,” Greenfield said. “There are many things you can do besides sales, which is a great thing, but there are so many facets that our businesses encompass.”