Making Solar Big Enough to Matter

The US should sit up and take notice of a  March 21, 2017 article in the New York Times entitled “Making Solar Big Enough to Matter.”  The essence of the article is to document how quickly and efficiently China is expanding its solar power capabilities, outpacing everyone else, including the US.   Consider the following:

In the mid-2000s, stimulated by hefty solar subsidies in Europe, a handful of entrepreneurs in China started producing inexpensive solar panels, much as had been done in China before with T-shirts and televisions. These entrepreneurs bought equipment from manufacturers in Europe and the United States, built big factories with government subsidies, and got down to business cranking out millions of solar panels for export.

Today, China utterly dominates global solar-panel manufacturing. Last year, according to the consulting firm IHS Markit, China accounted for 70 percent of global capacity for manufacturing crystalline-silicon solar panels, the most common type. The United States share was 1 percent.

In addition, authors Jeffrey Ball and Dan Reicher credit China with advancing technologically to the point that it is “starting to score world-record solar cell efficiencies.”  While China is expanding it manufacturing footprint across the globe and making infrastructure investments, the US is accused of a maintaining a haphazard solar policy that relies on inadequate subsidies and conflicting priorities.    As more governments impose prices on carbon dioxide emissions, the US appears to be deregulating industry and reversing the progress made on environmental standards.  We are jeopardizing our commitments to alternative energy sources and to combating global warming.

Ball and Reicher maintain that the US needs to recognize that solar energy has become big business. Over the past decade it has “plummeted in cost, surged in volume, and, as booming industries do, benefited some investors and burned others.” The International Energy Agency estimates that photovoltaic solar could provide up to 16 percent of the world’s electricity by mid-century — an enormous increase from the roughly 1 percent that solar generates today. But for solar to realize its potential, governments have to make it a priority and until we do, China will continue to dominate the industry and to reap the economic and environmental benefits.

Getting solar to produce approximately 1 percent of global electricity has required a lot of technology and investment, but making it big enough to matter environmentally would be an even more colossal undertaking.  The authors maintain that we need to make that commitment and call for massive increases in the number of solar panels in open spaces and on roofs, a significant increase in solar energy storage capabilities, and a commitment to a viable distribution system involving public utility companies.

Instead they criticize the US for its often inconsistent priorities.  For example, on the one hand the United States is trying to make solar cheaper, through tax breaks, at the same time it’s making solar more expensive, through tariffs it has imposed on solar products imported from China, now the world’s largest manufacturer and installer of solar panels.  

These tariffs are prompting Chinese solar manufacturers to set up factories other than in the US – in countries that don’t levy these tariffs and to retaliate by establishing its own tariffs against American-made solar goods. According to the article, the result has been to “erode the United States share in the one part of solar manufacturing — polysilicon, the raw material for solar cells — in which America once had a significant role.”

The recommendations to achieve a more enlightened United States policy include slashing solar power’s costs and cooperating with the Chinese on solar research and development rather than trying to compete with them in terms of manufacturing capability.  We are reminded that solar is now a global industry, able to make a real environmental difference. Whether it delivers on that promise will depend on policy makers intent on making solar energy economically efficient in an interdependent world able to make more progress through cooperation than competition.