Circular Electric Power: Cradle-to-Cradle Thinking Enters the Contracting World

Going green—really green—isn’t easy. It takes dedication, attention to detail and a vigilance to an ever-changing supply chain. Cradle to cradle (C2C) is both a movement and a product standard for manufacturers that develop products with materials that retain their value. It’s often referred to as “circular design.” Of companies earning C2C certification, 67 percent of the products serve the built environment. To date, five are directly related to electrical construction, and several others are tied into power delivery.

The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, a global nonprofit organization headquartered in San Francisco, administers the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard, which drives designers and manufacturers to continually improve product materials and manufacturing processes. William McDonough and Michael Braungar created the standard and passed it on to the institute in 2010. Their defining 2002 book, “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,” was followed 11 years later by “The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance,” which delves further into this concept of endlessly cycled materials, a process called “upcycling.” 

Stacy Glass, vice president—built environment, Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, said that 262 manufacturers represent 462 active C2C certifications that cover 5,700 products, which must be recertified every two years. The institute is on track to double certifications in 2016, and the goal is to continue doubling certifications for each of the next five years.

“Growth has been good,” she said. “Green building programs are also starting to recognize C2C, including LEED V4 [Materials & Resources Credit 4], The Living Building Challenge and the WELL Building Standard.”

According to Glass, discussions of sustainability’s future often include regenerative design, resiliency and a circular economy, all of which C2C embraces.

“Ten years ago, [C2C] was ahead of its time as the sustainability conversation tended to center on energy, water and recycled content,” she said. “Now, material health, material reutilization and responsible sourcing are emerging as the next important things in sustainability discussions. Instead of chasing at doing less bad to the environment, the aim is to do more good. Achieving a healthy building to live, learn or work [in] is one example of doing more good. It’s more than just water and energy savings. It’s a discussion of how do we remove toxins in manufacturing and the end product, find ways to recapture water [and] use lighting that promotes a healthier work environment.”

According to Glass, the quality of the recycled materials and their retention of value is the next phase in environmentally friendly products.

“So we advocate design with safe ingredients that can be perpetually reused—materials that can be disassembled and returned to the appropriate nutrient stream [biologic or technical],” she said. “Copper used in electrical wiring is a perfect example of something that can be endlessly reused. Aluminum, too.” 

In the C2C movement, if it comes out of the ground, you design it to be upcycled. This is where the innovation takes place and the hard work begins. For example, creating a C2C LED luminaire is challenging in part because LEDs can contain lead, arsenic and a dozen other potentially dangerous substances. A successfully certified C2C LED product is now available in Europe. The Netherlands-based BB Light Concepts’ LEDlightpipe is a tubular LED luminaire that can be disassembled and its parts and materials safely returned into the production process.

C2C product certifications include basic, bronze, silver, gold and platinum. LEDlightpipe earned bronze.

“In the electrical contractor’s world, the wire, the connectors, the fixtures, the luminaires are part of a supply chain that can change rapidly,” Glass said. “The contractor is in a great position to ask the right questions when they source products for a project, such as, ‘Is it PVC-free?’ Of those building materials that fall under a contractor’s purview, discover which have C2C-certified counterparts.”

‘It’s good business’

Aquion Energy Inc.’s saltwater batteries are C2C bronze-
certified storage batteries designed for stationary, long-duration, daily cycling. They are applicable for residential solar, off-grid, microgrids, grid-scale services and overall energy management. 

“Our aqueous hybrid-ion technology uses both lithium and sodium ions with a saltwater electrolyte, a unique chemistry from other salt water batteries,” said Matthew Maroon, vice president of product management, Aquion Energy, Pittsburgh. “We are completely nontoxic, noncaustic and nonflammable, which allowed us to go into C2C meeting the material requirements.”

The Aspen line features a stack of eight batteries, compressed. They are wired as a 48-volt/2.5 kilowatt-hour unit and can be connected in series 
or parallel.

“We were using PVC-rated wires, but PVC is excluded from C2C certification,” Maroon said. 


In the C2C movement, if it comes out of the ground, you design it to be upcycled. This is where the innovation takes place and the hard work begins.


Although PVC dominates insulation and jacketing in the wire and cable industry, its toxicity is also high, due to chemicals used in its manufacture, including vinyl chloride (a carcinogen).

“We had to figure out what to use, its cost and its supply availability, and how it impacted the manufacture of our product,” Maroon said. “That took some work, but we landed on XLPE [high-density crosslinked polyethylene] jackets.”

Aquion Energy, like all companies pursuing C2C certification, must provide a chemistry analysis of its product using an accredited assessment body. 

“We use a lot of raw powders in the manufacture of our batteries, and they needed to be analyzed,” Maroon said. “From there, we had to drill down to our entire supply chain. We contacted our suppliers that were primary, secondary and beyond, to map out every single material that went into our batteries. It’s demanding.”

Maroon would like to see effective and environmental products replace dirtier power counterparts such as diesel generators. 

“For our products, you can use a solar array to charge the batteries during the day and use the battery to support the electrical loads at night, sometimes called ‘PV self-
consumption,’” Maroon said. “You’ll find our batteries in Hawaii, where electricity rates are the highest in the country. With the amount and intensity of sunlight in that state, solar plus storage makes sense.”

Glass said companies interested in C2C often want to stay ahead of legislation, manage liability and do the right thing. 

“As more C2C products enter the marketplace, the bigger the market and the more favorable the economics will become for a manufacturer,” Glass said.

The institute also provides a business case for C2C-certified products. This framework lays out clearly defined performance indicators, so manufacturers and others can assess the business, environmental and social impact of having C2C-certified products.

Discoveries and alignments

PVC is a nonstarter for C2C and certification programs, including the Living Building Challenge. Hueson Wire & Cable, Northbridge, Mass., earned silver C2C certification for its Enviro-Wire. Available as a single-end hook-up wire or multiconductor cable, the product is halogen-free and contains no PVC. Beyond the company developing new compounds for its wire and cable jackets, it modernized its manufacturing in the process. 

Hueson’s general manager, Brian Hanlon, said that even green products can hit snags in the marketplace. 

“The C2C products we currently manufacture are designed for appliance wire and fixtures,” he said. “We do not have the necessary UL or NEC approvals to manufacture products that would be suitable for usage inside buildings due to the rigorous flame requirements that have been established by the NEC. We have been working on developing products that would satisfy both the NEC and the C2C requirements, but the halogens that are almost necessary to meet UL/NEC flame tests are the very elements that disqualify them as environmentally friendly products.”

Sunpower Corp., San Jose, Calif., found its company aligned perfectly with C2C requirements. It earned silver certification for its E-Series and X-Series solar panels. Its “Beneficial by Design” philosophy touches on C2C’s requirements that a company must meet, including materials reutilization, material health, renewable energy and carbon management (carbon offset), water stewardship, and social fairness (supply chain and positive impact in the lives of employees and the local community). Under “materials reutilization,” the environmentally friendly manufacture of its Maxeon DC panels extends to features such as its solid copper solar cell foundation used to strengthen the cells.

“C2C certification is the most rigorous product certification, and that’s why we chose to pursue it,” said Marissa Yao, director of supply chain sustainability for Sunpower Corp. “Our supply chain, sustainability program, our product testing that looks out for hazardous chemicals was all information at the ready and complied.”

She added that getting your supply chain on board is the challenge to creating and maintaining a product that is C2C.

“We educated our suppliers in why C2C was important to us and could benefit them, including recognition of the good work they are already doing,” Yao said. “In fact, C2C requirements are something we encourage our suppliers to pursue in earning their own certification. We also ask them to help us stay in compliance by reviewing what they provide us. We review our in-house engineering, as well.”

Yao agreed that ECs will find value in following the emergence of C2C products in the building marketplace.

“ECs play a huge part in building design and construction as the green building trend and certification continues,” she said. “For ECs, they will be faced with not only maximizing a building’s energy efficiency but sourcing components that don’t contain hazardous materials. C2C is a validation of a products sustainability, which can help ECs meet green building goals and requirements."

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer
Jeff Gavin, LEED Green Associate, is the owner of Gavo Communications, a sustainability-focused marketing services firm serving the energy and construction industries. He can be reached at .

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.