The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy

Solar panel installations are surging in the U.S. and Europe as Western countries seek to cut their reliance on fossil fuels. But the West faces a conundrum…: Most of them are produced with energy from carbon-dioxide-belching, coal-burning plants in China.

Concerns are mounting in the U.S. and Europe that the solar industry’s reliance on Chinese coal will create a big increase in emissions in the coming years as manufacturers rapidly scale up production of solar panels to meet demand. That would make the solar industry one of the world’s most prolific polluters, analysts say, undermining some of the emissions reductions achieved from widespread adoption. For years, China’s low-cost, coal-fired electricity has given the country’s solar-panel manufacturers a competitive advantage, allowing them to dominate global markets.

Chinese factories supply more than three-quarters of the world’s polysilicon, an essential component in most solar panels, according to industry analyst Johannes Bernreuter…Producing a solar panel in China creates around twice as much carbon dioxide as making it in Europe, said Fengqi You, professor of energy systems engineering at Cornell University.

Some Western governments and corporations are attempting to shift the solar industry away from coal…These policies would also help rebuild the West’s solar industry, which has withered under competition from higher-polluting Chinese producers, Western executives say…China has pushed down the price of panels so sharply that solar power is now less expensive than electricity generated from fossil fuels in many markets around the world. Imports of the solar cells that make up the panels are also flooding into the U.S. and Europe. Those shipments are either coming directly from China or contain key components made in China. “If China didn’t have access to coal, then solar power wouldn’t be cheap now,” said Robbie Andrew, a senior researcher at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo. “Is it OK that we’ve had this huge bulge of carbon emissions from China because it allowed them to develop all these technologies really cheaply? We might not know that for another 30 to 40 years.”

Excerpts from Matthew Dalton, Behind the Rise of U.S. Solar Power, a Mountain of Chinese Coal, July 31, 2021

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