Tesla is certainly playing a large role in publicizing the potential of solar and other forms of renewable energy to meet consumer demand in the near future. However, it seems that Tesla is not really leading the way in innovating products. Tesla’s own solar panels are made using Panasonic’s production methods and unlike the Tesla automobile line that launched to considerable public fanfare, Tesla has opted to quietly update their website to reflect their new solar offerings, hinting that there isn’t much new to see. Given the unusual silence from Tesla about their solar products, it seems likely that they aren’t using new or innovative methods to produce these panels, and leave their sustainability practices to the consumer’s imagination. All of these factors lead to a poor rating.
Tesla is very secretive regarding the technological and material components of their solar panels, but based on the promotional materials on their website, Tesla seems to market their solar panels as a more aesthetically pleasing option, not necessarily a more efficient solar panel. All solar panels are constructed from the same base materials- silicon, metal, and glass. Given Tesla’s lack of transparency in their promotional materials and impact report into their material sourcing, it is responsible to assume that Tesla is not sourcing their materials sustainably.
Many of the raw materials are sourced from mines in nations with poor track records of protecting workers’ rights and the environment. A report from the University of Allahabad found that regions where silica mining occurs are “severely degraded” and abandoned mines have “scarred the landscape, disrupted ecosystems, and destroyed microbial communities.” Furthermore, the refinement processes create more environmentally-harmful by-products, that although recyclable, are usually not, as the equipment needed costs in the tens-of-millions of dollars. Without increased transparency from Tesla, I cannot assume that Tesla is sourcing their materials in a more environmentally conscious manner.
Solar panels follow a standard construction process and Tesla again does not provide any information to insinuate that their solar panels are made in a different manner. Solar panel construction begins by extracting the raw materials and refining them into usable silicon, glass, and metal. The initial refinement process takes place in large furnaces, thus requiring massive energy expenditures. In the case of silicon, the secondary refinement step combines hydrochloric acid with silicon, which produces the refined silicon necessary, but also creates a harmful by-product known as tetrachloride.
While this byproduct can be recycled and used to produce more refined silicon, the majority of manufacturers do not recycle it. The tetrachloride then leeches into and acidifies the surrounding water and soils. After the refined materials are produced, individual silicon “wafers” are sliced and affixed to the panel, electrical systems are connected and wired, and lastly, the cells are covered with a special coating.
Tesla has both ardent supporters and detractors, whose views are largely curated based on their admiration or disdain for Elon Musk, Tesla’s eccentric founder. Musk envisions Tesla shepherding the world toward a sustainable future in the energy and transportation sectors through their innovation in automobiles and solar. While Tesla and Musk are certainly leading a nonconventional path toward sustainability, they have been embroiled in controversy since the beginning. To date, Tesla has been included in over 1,000 lawsuits. Musk has also been lambasted for his seeming lack of maturity, with a chief example being his tweet in 2018 stating “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” This tweet caused the stock to skyrocket, but later fall when the tweet was revealed to be false information. Musk had to settle fraud charges with the SEC as a result.
Besides Musk’s own volatility, Tesla itself has been charged for negligence regarding their solar products. Walmart sued Tesla in 2019, alleging that Tesla did not properly install nor maintain their solar panels, leading to fires at 7 different Walmart locations. The lawsuit was settled out of court. Also in 2019, a California court ruled that Tesla violated labor laws by “sabotaging” employee attempts to unionize.