Trina Solar Factory Tour: Addressing Environmnetal & Quality Concerns
by Tor Valenza a.k.a. “Solar Fred”
The Trina Solar (TSL) factory tour and testing facility tour is over. It took perhaps an hour, maybe less.
The next stop is a small auditorium where Ben Hill, Trina’s VP of sales, gives us a PowerPoint presentation that includes Trina’s history, market share, company philosophy, and their Formula 1 racing branding initiative. Afterward, Trina’s CEO, Jifan Gao, appears, and we are able to ask him questions through a translator.
What I want to know about is maintaining quality control, their sustainability practices, potential manufacturing in the U.S., not to mention how Trina will address solar PV commoditization. (Due to the long length of this post, I’m saving this subject for my next and final Solar Fred in China post.)
On Chinese Quality Concerns
Throughout my trip, I’ve heard nasty stories here in China about manufacturers taking shortcuts and not manufacturing to specs, especially for foreign companies moving their manufacturing here. My travels in Shanghai allowed me to talk to several people in a number of industries, and all had similar stories of shortcuts and poor quality from suppliers. If you check the comments section of my second China post, there are several solar examples from readers. However, based on this press conference and other outside reports, it’s clear that Trina doesn't have these issues. Why?
First of all, Trina is a Chinese company. That means they don’t need anyone to translate or facilitate anything, and they are well aware of problems with outside suppliers and QC manufacturing issues. Their solution to supplier QC is to, well…have as few suppliers as possible and to keep the remaining suppliers as close as possible. That is, Trina’s a vertically integrated company; from solar ingots to wafers to modules, they own it. So if Trina’s taking shortcuts, they’re only shortcutting themselves. The only thing they don’t supply is the raw silicon, glass, and a few other minor components, but even there, Trina is encouraging these suppliers to be manufacturing on campus or near their huge solar PV park in Changzhou.
Beyond that, the company already scores high on outside benchmark tests, such as Photon International’s ongoing module output test of major PV brands. Trina’s 180w randomly selected module is in 4th place after two years of STC output. Plus, as mentioned in my last China post, Trina’s well known to be “bankable,” and banks have far better due diligence than our factory tour and press conference.
On Environmental Concerns
Making solar PV wafers and modules ain’t pretty. There are a lot of toxic, non-yummy chemicals and waste water in the manufacturing process that nobody would want added to their drinking water or crops. In 2008, there was a Washington Post report about a solar PV manufacturer dumping PV waste chemicals into the ground and rivers outside the solar factory, poisoning residents and farms.
To their credit, Trina is conscientious and transparent about their environmental efforts. They’ve reportedly invested more than $12 million in recycling programs, reduced electricity consumption in all workshops, switched to low-consumption lights, shortened cycle time for selected machines, and invested over $80 million in sustainable manufacturing. Part of that money went toward building a new waste water plant with a capacity of 10,000 tons/day, potentially recycling 60% of all water from the manufacturing process.
As to the overall carbon footprint per module, Hill tells us they’re in the process of calculating that figure. Once they know what that number is, Trina says it is committed to reducing it.
Finally, Trina is certified ISO 14001, which means they comply with some international environmental management standards. In addition, they’re a member of PVCycle for end-of-life module recycling, and according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Trina scores an 89 out of 100.
In our press conference of 30 international reporters, Trina’s CEO, Jifan Gao, got the same question at least three times, including one from a Chinese reporter. The question: “When are you going to build a factory in my country?” Or, in the case of the Chinese reporter, the question was, “When are you going to build a factory in my region?”
It’s flattering to be so desired, no? In any case, Trina is a publicly traded company, so Gao’s (translated) answer was thoughtful, but vague enough not to move Trina’s stock price in any direction. And that answer was essentially that Trina is always assessing customer needs in each country. If a particular market needs a new factory and Trina can swing it and produce modules at a competitive price, then they’ll build a factory there.
In other words, Trina’s open to building a factory in fill-in-the-blank-country/region—but there are currently no plans. For now, they have a total of 17,000 employees worldwide, 13,000 of which are in Changzhou, and they said their workforce is still growing globally.
I speak with other Trina executives later, who tell me that as much as customers want American energy independence, they rarely ask for a made-in-America panel. Price is their first consideration. Politicians who support or oppose solar policies don’t see it that way, of course. I’ll have more thoughts about this in my next and final China post.
Until then, UnThink Solar.