Behind the rise of US solar energy, a mountain of Chinese coal

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The number of solar panel installations in the US and Europe is on the rise as Western countries try to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.

Concerns are mounting in the US and Europe that the solar industry’s reliance on Chinese coal will lead to a major increase in emissions in the coming years as manufacturers quickly scale up solar panel production 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 through widespread adoption.
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Behind the rise of US solar energy, a mountain of Chinese coal

The coal-fired Urumqi Thermal Power Plant in western China.


Photo:


Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

For years, China’s cheap coal-fired electricity has given 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. Polysilicon plants refine silicon metal using a process that consumes large amounts of electricity, making access to cheap power a cost advantage. Chinese authorities have built a series of coal-fired power plants in sparsely populated areas such as Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to support polysilicon producers and other energy-hungry industries.


“If China didn’t have access to coal, solar energy wouldn’t be cheap now.”


— Climate researcher Robbie Andrew

Producing a solar panel in China creates about twice as much carbon dioxide as making it in Europe, said Fengqi You, a professor of energy systems engineering at Cornell University. In some countries or regions that don’t rely heavily on fossil fuels for electricity generation, such as Norway and France, installing a carbon-rich China-made solar panel may not cut emissions at all, Mr. U said.

“Yes, we are clean” in the West, Mr. You said. “But the process of getting these panels from another country — China now, maybe somewhere else later — produces a lot of emissions.”

However, scientists say that installing Chinese-made panels almost always results in a net reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over time, as the panels usually replace electricity generated from fossil fuels. The avoided emissions after the first few years of a solar panel’s 30-year life can offset the emissions needed to produce it.

Behind the rise of US solar energy, a mountain of Chinese coal

Workers install solar panels in Laudun L’Ardoise, France, a country that does not rely heavily on fossil fuels for electricity generation.


Photo:


Jeremy Suyker/Bloomberg News

Some western governments and companies are trying to move the solar industry away from coal. Companies that buy renewable energy are laying the groundwork for choosing low-carbon solar panels when financing solar projects. The U.S. federal government is establishing a policy to do the same when purchasing solar panels, an Environmental Protection Agency spokesman said. And the European Union is considering whether to regulate the carbon content of panels sold in the 27-nation bloc, EU officials say.

These policies would also help rebuild the solar industry in the West, which has withered under competition from more polluting Chinese producers, Western executives say.

According to consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, U.S. solar capacity has increased by 48% over the past two years. In Europe it has increased by 34%. Those installations amount to tens of thousands of solar panels that are shipped every year.

“Major energy buyers can influence supply chains,” said Jen Snook of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, representing

Amazon.com Inc.,

Salesforce.com Inc.

and more than 200 other companies. “Solar will hopefully maintain a very strong growth rate and we want to make sure the growth is sustainable.”

The dilemma is becoming increasingly apparent as world leaders prepare to meet in Glasgow, Scotland, this November to make another effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Part of that effort involves coaxing China, the world’s largest emitter, to move away from coal-fired electricity to cut emissions even as the West chokes on Chinese equipment from solar panels to lightweight aluminum for electric vehicles. At a July meeting of environmental ministers from the Group of 20 Leading Economies, China and India blocked an agreement to phase out coal-fired electricity.

Finding alternatives will not be easy. China’s rising and cheaper production of polysilicon has hurt US producers, forcing to close several factories that use power sources with lower carbon emissions than Chinese producers.

Wacker Chemistry AG

, the largest solar polysilicon producer in the West, is paying up to four times as much for power at its factories in Germany compared to Chinese producers in Xinjiang, company spokesman Christof Bachmair said.

China has cut the price of panels so much that solar energy is now cheaper than electricity generated from fossil fuels in many markets around the world. Imports of the solar cells that make up the panels also flow to the US and Europe.

Those shipments either come directly from China or contain key components made in China.

“If China didn’t have access to coal, solar energy wouldn’t be cheap right now,” said Robbie Andrew, senior researcher at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo. “Is it OK that we have had this huge amount of carbon emissions from China because it allowed them to develop all these technologies very cheaply? We may not know that for 30 to 40 years.”

Some Chinese polysilicon producers are well placed to respond to Western demand for low-carbon panels.

Tongwei,

The world’s largest producer, has several factories that run on hydropower. However,

Daqo New Energy

and GCL Poly, Tongwei’s main Chinese competitors, rely heavily on coal, according to the companies.

Behind the rise of US solar energy, a mountain of Chinese coal

Daqo New Energy Corp., which operates this plant in Xinjiang Province, is one of China’s coal-dependent polysilicon producers.


Photo:


Colum Murphy/Bloomberg News

France is one of the few countries to regulate the carbon content of solar panels and requires low carbon panels for large solar projects. That has prompted some Chinese panel manufacturers to use renewable energy in some processes, allowing them to sell into the French market. South Korea this year passed rules inspired by the French system, and other European countries have expressed interest, officials from the region say.

China’s dominance in the solar supply chain is also making it harder for the handful of companies trying to build solar capacity in the West. China is home to most of the companies that cut polysilicon into wafers, pack the wafers into cells, and assemble the cells into panels. US tariffs on Chinese solar panels and cells have prompted Chinese companies to set up factories for these parts in other countries.

JinkoSolar,

a Chinese company, built a panel assembly plant in Florida to supply

Next Era Energy,

one of the largest US renewable energy companies. But the wafer and polysilicon come from China, analysts say.

Italian energy company

Enel

SpA plans to expand its solar panel factory in Sicily, one of the few remaining in Europe, but the factory will still rely on silicon wafers from China.

“We would be happy if the other part of the value chain settled in Europe,” said Antonello Irace, director of the factory in Sicily. “Think of sustainability, think of working conditions, think of logistics costs and proximity.”

Beijing has further hampered Western efforts by introducing tariffs on US polysilicon as part of a long-running trade dispute over solar panels. That stopped US manufacturers from selling raw materials to Chinese waffle factories — which have more than 95% of global capacity — leaving them with almost no buyers for their product.

The rates led

REC Silicon AS

One in 2019 to shut down a plant in Moses Lake, Wash., which runs on carbon-free hydropower. The company hoped negotiations between the Trump administration and Beijing would lead to tariffs being scrapped. Instead, Beijing extended tariffs for five years last year.

“We have a lot of polysilicon capacity,” said David Feldman, a researcher at the U.S. government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “and it would be good for them to have customers.”

Behind the rise of US solar energy, a mountain of Chinese coal

A solar park near Bakersfield, Texas, on Saturday, April 10, 2021.


Photo:


Bill Clark/Zuma Press

Write to Matthew Dalton at [email protected]

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