A new report reveals the impact of installing 8 million solar panels across America

What’s the impact of installing more than 8 million solar panels across America?

In other words, what impact have SolarCity and its 250,000+ customers had on the planet over the last 10 years, since we first set out to fuel a clean energy revolution?

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That question is the crux of our just published Impact Report, which examines SolarCity’s progress in a number of environmental and social categories, such as combating climate change, creating a safe workplace, and improving energy access for off-grid communities.

In the face of urgent global challenges, we’re proud to participate in some of the solutions. Measuring our broader impact on the world — and candidly identifying areas for improvement — is important for keeping us on track. We also want to provide transparency on key sustainability metrics that guide us as a double-bottom-line company.

Here are five highlights you’ll find in our 2015 Impact Report:

1) Our carbon footprint continues to be driven by the manufacture of solar panel systems. However, our carbon footprint per installation is decreasing.

In measuring our annual carbon footprint, we examined many different aspects of our business, including vehicle emissions, office electricity consumption, manufacturing, employee air travel, and more. In both 2014 and 2015, the largest component of our carbon footprint was the manufacturing of solar panel systems.

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We’re actively investing in ways to reduce our carbon footprint, both in manufacturing and other areas. In manufacturing, for example, our new solar panel factory in Western New York will minimize process waste and draw heavily on non-polluting hydropower. Meanwhile, on the roads, we’ve substantially cut emissions per installation by optimizing vehicle types and fleet management.

Our efforts so far appear to be making a meaningful difference: in 2015, our carbon footprint per installation decreased by 5.5% compared to 2014.

 

2) For each ton of carbon emitted in our 2015 carbon footprint, the clean energy systems that we have deployed avoided more than 3 tons.

The solar power systems that we have deployed produce millions of kilowatt-hours of carbon-free electricity every day – an impact that far outstrips our annual carbon footprint. As a result, we are enabling a dramatic net reduction in global carbon emissions.DES-5441_SolarCity_Impact_Report__Chart_1.2.png

In 2015, this net amount of avoided CO2 was more than 820,000 metric tons – equivalent in impact to taking over 173,000 cars off the road for a full year, or taking 113,000 U.S. homes entirely off the electric grid for a full year.

In addition to enabling a significant net reduction in carbon pollution, the solar power systems we’ve deployed are also helping save water and keep communities healthy. In 2015, systems deployed by SolarCity avoided more than 32 billion gallons of water use at the nation’s power plants – enough to fill 49,000 Olympic-sized pools. Those systems’ solar energy production was also enough to prevent more than 10 million pounds of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and ozone from polluting America’s air.

 

3) Even accounting for the lifecycle carbon footprint of solar technology, the typical SolarCity system starts delivering net carbon reductions in less than 1 year

Prospective solar customers often ask a critical question about the carbon implications of going solar. In particular, how long must you use clean electricity from a solar power system (in lieu of consuming electricity exclusively from the grid) to make up for the system’s lifecycle carbon footprint? The “lifecycle” footprint encompasses everything from extracting raw materials, to manufacturing and shipping solar panels, to ultimately recycling the system.

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We find that the carbon payback time of a typical system installed by SolarCity is remarkably short — namely less than a year — even when taking into account the lifecycle emissions of the system. Since solar panels are built to last at least 30 years, it means that after a relatively brief carbon payback period, a system installed by SolarCity can generate significant net carbon reductions year after year, for decades.

In the same vein, our Impact Report shows that producing a given amount of electricity with a system installed by SolarCity has a lifecycle carbon footprint that is around 95% smaller than that of a conventional power plant.

 

4) We’ve created more than 15,000 clean energy jobs and are excelling at workplace safety. Improving employee diversity remains a priority.

The 2015 Solar Jobs Census finds that the solar industry is an enormous job creator—adding workers at a rate nearly 12 times faster than the overall economy and accounting for 1 out of 83 new jobs in the U.S. between November 2014 and November 2015.

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As the nation’s leading solar installer, SolarCity has been at the forefront of adding jobs across all business categories. Between the end of 2013 and the end of 2015, our total employment jumped 254% to more than 15,000. Also during that period, we’ve emerged as a leader on safety – markedly exceeding the performance of comparable industry categories such as roofing contractors, electrical contractors, and other electric power companies.

One of our areas of focus is employee diversity, especially in our gender composition. As of December 2015, SolarCity’s workforce is 43% ethnically or racially diverse and 18% women. Historically, women have not composed a large part of our industry’s talent pool. We want to be a leader in changing that, as well as in achieving high rates of diversity at every level – from entry-level teammates to senior management.

We are taking a growing number of steps to cultivate diversity across the company – including hiring a full-time Head of Diversity and Inclusion, adopting a “Rooney Rule” to promote the interviewing of minority candidates, and creating vibrant Employee Resource Groups like “Women in Power” and “Powered by Pride.”

 

5) Our philanthropic foundation, GivePower, has installed off-grid solar systems for more than 1,500 schools in the developing world. We’ve begun to expand the scope of the program.

More than 1 billion people globally do not have access to any electric power, billions more lack sufficient access to reliable electricity for a reasonable quality of life, and hundreds of millions of children attend primary schools without it. SolarCity founded the GivePower foundation to address these populations that lack sufficient, affordable electricity.

Since 2014, SolarCity has funded an off-grid solar system in the developing world for every megawatt of solar power installed in the U.S. As of the end of 2015, we’ve powered more than 1,500 schools across three continents.

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Encouraged by the success of the school-focused clean energy program, GivePower is expanding its scope to deliver a range of essential community services to the developing world, including: education, water, health, food security, economic development, telecommunications, and conservation.

Barry Fischer is Editorial Director at SolarCity. Monica Meagher leads sustainability initiatives at SolarCity. Graphics by Jose Ramirez. 

Methodology Notes: 

Through the end of 2015, we installed 1,947 GW of solar power capacity, spanning more than 8.3 million solar panels.

For the purposes of our 2015 Impact Report, we have identified the carbon reductions and environmental benefits that originate from the systems we have installed. However, we cannot and do not necessarily claim legal ownership of those reductions or benefits. That ownership contractually resides with the party that owns the Renewable Energy Credit (REC) associated with a given unit of solar energy production — whether it be another organization, a customer, or in some cases our company. For more details, see “What Are Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs)?” on page 28 of report.

Calculations of avoided carbon pollution and other avoided air pollutants are based on eGRID 2010 and EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalency Calculator (calculations performed in April 2016).

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