Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The United States Can’t Afford the Brutal Price of Chinese Solar Panels

Americans need a national green tech strategy.

By , a researcher at the Center for a New American Security.
Solar modules in China
The solar modules of a newly installed power project in Dunhuang, China, on April 23, 2019. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

In a remote desert near the Tibetan Plateau in Northwest China, millions of solar panels produce enough electricity to power a midsize American city. This project, one of the largest solar farms ever built, uses raw materials, solar panels, and battery technologies that are produced in China. In 2019, China made 80 percent of the world’s supply of solar panels.

But buying Chinese solar panels to reduce emissions is like using gas to put out a fire. To manufacture critical raw materials like polysilicon, Chinese firms rely on coal-powered electricity in Xinjiang. Without even accounting for the energy impact of transporting the final products, a solar panel made in China has about double the carbon footprint as a similar panel manufactured in Europe.

This is also about fundamental U.S. values. On June 24, the Biden administration blocked a Xinjiang-based polysilicon manufacturer due indications of forced labor. According to recent research, human rights abuses are not isolated to a single company—the issue is systemic. Every single one of the polysilicon manufacturers in Xinjiang has links to coercive Chinese Communist Party-backed “labor transfer” programs.

In a remote desert near the Tibetan Plateau in Northwest China, millions of solar panels produce enough electricity to power a midsize American city. This project, one of the largest solar farms ever built, uses raw materials, solar panels, and battery technologies that are produced in China. In 2019, China made 80 percent of the world’s supply of solar panels.

But buying Chinese solar panels to reduce emissions is like using gas to put out a fire. To manufacture critical raw materials like polysilicon, Chinese firms rely on coal-powered electricity in Xinjiang. Without even accounting for the energy impact of transporting the final products, a solar panel made in China has about double the carbon footprint as a similar panel manufactured in Europe.

This is also about fundamental U.S. values. On June 24, the Biden administration blocked a Xinjiang-based polysilicon manufacturer due indications of forced labor. According to recent research, human rights abuses are not isolated to a single company—the issue is systemic. Every single one of the polysilicon manufacturers in Xinjiang has links to coercive Chinese Communist Party-backed “labor transfer” programs.

China’s chokehold on the solar supply chain thus presents challenges for U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent pledge to make electricity carbon-free by 2035. But supply chains are not immutable. Development and deployment of clean energy technology is not just good for the climate—it can help ensure a secure and socially responsible energy supply chain. This requires a green technology strategy for the next decade

Firm Zero-Emission Power

Firm Zero-Emission Power: Maintaining significant generating resources with operating characteristics similar to today’s power plants—often referred to as “firm” or “dispatchable” resources, because they can be ramped up and down at any time—would dramatically reduce the likely costs of deep decarbonization of the grid while also reducing technology risk by harnessing a more diversified portfolio of solutions. In FP Analytics’ latest report, find out how carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), advanced nuclear, and unconventional geothermal can be part of the solution.

The administration is already taking action to improve supply chain resiliency for four product categories including pharmaceuticals, rare-earth elements, semiconductors, and advanced batteries. For these critical products, the administration undertook 100-day review with a final report detailing recommendations for increasing supply chain resiliency. The Biden administration should plan a similar assessment of solar and wind technologies and issue recommendations to inform a strategic vision that can be reevaluated as needed.

More directly, Biden should implement a green technology strategy by making investments in domestic renewable energy. For example, the cadmium telluride panels produced by First Solar, an Arizona company with a new factory in Ohio, do not require polysilicon and have a lower environmental impact. Currently, the main federal strategy is a series of tax incentives that have subsidized production and installation. A more immediate strategy could be direct investment through government procurement and infrastructure spending. The federal government is currently the largest energy consumer in the United States, and strengthened Buy American policies can increase demand for solar equipment made in the United States.

Infrastructure improvements, such as modernization of energy grids and electric charging stations on highways, can also advance the deployment of solar energy technologies. Alongside solar, the administration can also diversify the energy mix by continuing to leverage domestic expertise in wind energy. Expanding the domestic supply of renewables could create millions of jobs and sustain innovation by protecting the competitiveness of the American renewable energy sector.

Because a shift in sourcing cannot happen overnight, the Biden administration should engage in long-term thinking about future energy supply chains. As part of a green technology strategy for the next decade, the United States should consider expanding research and development in green technology, including next-generation battery storage, negative emissions technologies, and renewable hydrogen. Importantly, these technologies are not far off. Advanced battery storage technology is on its way to becoming part of the energy grid, and renewable hydrogen—described as the single most important remaining question in the energy transition—has already been shown to be cost-competitive. Accelerating development and deployment of these technologies will need the proposed $35 billion to support clean energy technology currently in the infrastructure bill.

The United States cannot sustain this project alone. Washington is already cooperating with others, such as a recent joint initiative with European partners to diversify the rare-earth supply chain. Similar programs should be considered for solar technologies, such as collaborating with European solar initiatives to diversify sourcing, production, and R&D. Bilateral and plurilateral initiatives on climate can serve as a forum for considering the security of renewable technology supply chains.

Renewable energy is set to displace coal as the largest source of global energy as early as 2025. When that happens, renewable energy production may displace fossil fuels as key strategic assets for U.S. national security and critical infrastructure. By developing and implementing a green technology strategy, the United States can support American workers, maintain competitiveness in next-generation energy, and ensure a sustainable and secure future.

Henry Wu is a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. He is a researcher at the Center for a New American Security.

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