The dark side of solar remains underneath bright marketing

Solar company JinkoSolar faced a huge, four-day protest against its toxic waste dumping practices at its factory in China over the weekend. But at the same time in the U.S., JinkoSolar announced its sponsorship of the San Francisco football team: the 49ers. The disconnect shows how organizations looking to utilize green marketing by associating with greentech companies, need to both do their homework and tread carefully, and also shines a spotlight on how important it is for the solar industry to adhere to environmental regulations.

About 500 villagers converged on the factory of the Chinese solar panel cell and panel maker in Zhejiang Province starting on Thursday, according to news reports. The central government-run Xinhua News Agency reported (via Reuters) that JinkoSolar (s JKS) had failed pollution control tests since April. The company was supposed to suspend its operation at the factory until it could come up with a proper way to dispose of its wastes (the Reuters (s tri) story includes a video of the protest).

Solar companies have been using the environmentally friendly image of solar energy to promote their brands via sports team sponsorships in recent years. Yingli Green Energy got some nice press for its sponsorship of the World Cup in 2010, and it plans to do it again in the next World Cup in 2014. Canadian Solar has sponsored the Silicon Valley hockey team, the San Jose Sharks as well as the San Francisco Giants. But such strategy could backfire if solar companies run afoul of environmental regulations.

San Francisco is known to promote environmentally friendly policies and touts one of the largest municipal solar incentive programs, started in 2008. Having ties with a company known to pollute the environment and which drew such a big protest might not be the best interest of the 49ers. We’ve emailed the football team about its sponsorship and will update the story if we hear back.

Solar toxic solid waste

The villagers gathered to protest over what they said were fluoride-containing solid waste from the company that flowed into a nearby river following a heavy rain in August, killing a lot of fish. Government inspectors found the water to exceed the fluoride limit by 10 times.

While the protest was underway,  JinkoSolar announced last Friday that it will be sponsoring the 49ers for the 2011-12 season. The football team’s chief operating officer, Paraag Marathe, said in a press release that the team’s deal with JinkoSolar is “a reflection of the San Francisco 49ers’ dedication to promoting environmentally friendly practices within our facilities and throughout the greater community.”

JinkoSolar, for its part, issued a press release Monday which said it’s cooperating with the local government’s investigation about its waste disposal practice and has suspended its operation at the solar cell factory until it fixes the problem. The company said an initial investigation showed that the polluting of the nearby river “may have been caused by the improper storage of waste containing fluoride.”

While the company promises to “take all necessary steps to ensure that it is in compliance with all environmental rules and regulation,” the company also believes it can do this quickly and said it plans to restart the factory “within the next few days.”

Jinko isn’t alone in having to deal with toxic wastes. Other solar manufacturers from around the world, including those in the United States, have to do the same.

Spotlight on JinkoSolar

JinkoSolar’s shares on the New York Stock Exchange fell nearly 22 percent to reach $7.09 per share in recent trading.

JinkoSolar’s pollution control problem also is under spotlight at a time when sentiment about China’s dominance in the solar panel production is attracting resentments in some quarters. Solyndra filed for bankruptcy earlier this month after borrowing about half a million dollars from the U.S. government to build a factory and blamed its fate mainly on the growing competition from larger, “foreign rivals.” While Solyndra didn’t specifically mention Chinese companies, it’s well known that Chinese manufacturers have cemented their grip on the solar market in the last three years primarily by building large factories. The larger factories provide an economy of scale that allows the manufacturers to lower the prices significantly, especially when market demand crashed as it did earlier this year.

The New York Times story (s nyt) on JinkoSolar mentioned that the number of environmental protests has been growing in China. That has prompted the government to take actions to fix some of the problems and calm the public, but whether the government can effectively remedy the environmental damage that has accumulated over the years as the country embarked on an economic boom remains to be seen.

Image courtesy of Matt McGee.