Pros: Made of safe & sustainable materials, Circular design philosophy, High solar panel efficiency
Cons: Lack of sourcing transparency, Not fully reporting from global sites
Maxeon, previously SunPower, has demonstrated great sustainability leadership in the solar panel market. Their exceptional certifications, leading solar panel efficiency, constant metrics improvements, and circular design philosophy are inspiring. They also help the solar panel industry leans to be truly committed to an all-around greener energy source. They also lead with greater transparency, especially with their product ingredient list. However, this transparency does not trickle into most other parts of the company, and even in the ingredient list their sources are hard to find . It is unclear if their improved metrics come from cleaner processes or mainly from greater panel efficiency. We do not know if the company’s many other manufacturing sites produce as little waste as their flagship site. They recycle many solar panels, but exactly how efficient this is is also unknown. Perhaps the most glaring lack of transparency comes from their workforce statistics, how well their workers are doing in their manufacturing plants is hard to know. All in all, their cleaner and more circular process is impressive, they can however improve in many areas to fulfill their goal in sustainability leadership through more meaningful transparency.
Solar panels are often thought as the way forward and beyond fossil fuels. If thousands of houses install solar panels, less and less coal and gas consuming power plants will be necessary to power our homes, reducing our combined carbon footprint. There is still an environmental cost, however, from shifting from one centralized place of electricity generation, to many decentralized generators. Each set of solar panels require many prime materials to be manufactured, therefore it is key to society’s sustainability efforts to understand where they come from and how they are manipulated. We will explore the sustainability of Maxeon and their panels through the information available from their website and third party observers. Maxeon split off from the manufacturing branch of SunPower in 2020, at the time second biggest solar panel manufacturer in the US. It is important to note that after this split, Total, an oil & gas giant, remains the biggest shareholder of Maxeon.
Many solar panels are made from recycled silicon from semiconductor manufacturers, which is often only slightly less pure than what goes into electronics. The recent investment of a large semiconductor manufacturer (TZS) could indicate that they will continue to use this recycled material. Furthermore, the Maxeon/SunPower solar panels are recognized to be on of the most sustainable based on their many certifications. They have been Cradle to Cradle certified, which measures “safer, more sustainable products made for the circular economy,” receiving high scores in Material Reutilization and Water Stewardship. Their sustainability report, and many certifications, support their claims about reduced water and energy usage, and reduced waste. Their circular design philosophy highlights the importance of a long product lifetime, recyclability of old panels and responsible sourcing. Because they reduce the use of dangerous chemicals in their panels, it becomes easier to recycle them and for the parts to be used for future panels. Their material health score from Cradle to Cradle still needs some work to do, although their panels are said to be the only non-hazardous panel in the industry. Their website says they strive to source their materials from environmentally vigilant providers, that they seek conflict-free materials and attempt to source materials locally. This is, however, not as transparent as it could be, data to support the claims about sourcing are hard to find. It is important to note that they are the first panel manufacturer to fully disclose their product “ingredient” list, a big step towards greater transparency.
Over the last four years they have demonstrated over a 20% drop in energy and water consumption, as well as in emissionsper MW. This means that they are reducing the amount of resources and waste generated in comparison to the amount of energy their solar panels generate. This could be caused by either, or both, improved efficiency of the solar panels or a cleaner manufacturing process, it is not immediately clear which of the two was the driver in this reduction. Their manufacturing facility in Mexicali, Mexico diverts less than 1% of their waste to the local landfill, although it is not clear how common this is across their facilities around the world. Their sustainability report holds statistics about their “Global Manufacturing Sites,” but they are lumped together. More information about their energy efficiency across individual sites could help improve their transparency and perhaps push for even more sustainable manufacturing.
Again, they claim to seek products from conflict-free zones, however there no official documentation on how successful they have been in this quest. They also appear to have strong community relations, ensuring their product make a difference when deployed as a system, but it does not appear to include any special employment practices to support communities. With over 5000 employees reported worldwide there is not much publicly available information about their pay scale, their gender or other demographic data. The management team appears to be pretty gender-equal, but not diverse in other ways. The board of directors fares worse with gender equality, with only one woman in a ten-person board. Little information about employees leaves a lot of data missing from their fair employment claims.