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What’s Best For The Climate: Reshoring Solar Panel Production Or Just Buying Cheap From China?

What’s best for the climate: Reshoring solar panel production or just buying cheap from China?

What’s best for the climate: Reshoring solar panel production or just buying cheap from China?

upIn a world of gloomy climate news, solar panels have been a ray of sunshine. Back in 2010, thousands of experts were asked how quickly the costs of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems would fall. Their average guess was 2.6% each year, with the most optimistic predicting 6%. In fact, over the last ten years panel prices dropped 15% annually, making today’s projects three times (or more) cheaper than they were. But as the solar farms have multiplied, so have concerns about their supply chains. America and Europe fumbled the race to manufacture solar technology at scale. Chinese firms now control more than 80% of the global solar supply chain, helped by state subsidies. Punitive tariffs by the US and EU pushed prices up in the West but did little to alter the manufacturing realities, as explained in this excellent summary of recent solar history by an analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. So last year, the US doubled down. Biden’s sprawling Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) incentivizes domestic PV production to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. But is this a sensible climate policy? Should the US aim for local jobs and the greenest solar tech, or simply take advantage of historic low prices to deploy the most panels and replace fossil fuels? • • • Think Global, Build Local 1. Domestic panels are greener. There’s little argument that US-made panels can be more sustainable. An in-depth analysis by researchers at Cornell found that “reshoring” solar panel manufacturing could result in 30% lower greenhouse gas emissions and 13% lower energy use compared to globalized sources. Moreover, Chinese manufacturers rely heavily on coal power and have faced credible accusations of using coerced labor to assemble PV devices . “ If China didn’t have access to coal, then solar power wouldn’t be cheap now ,” Robbie Andrew, a researcher at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, told the Wall Street Journal. “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?” 2. More jobs, less carbon. Following the passage of the IRA, Bloomberg New Energy Finance nearly doubled its projection for solar energy generation in 2035. The Solar Energy Industry Association estimates that the IRA will result in an extra $200 billion being invested in cleantech over the next decade —doubling the number of solar installations and creating 200,000 more jobs. It calculates those deployments will cut America’s carbon footprint by 747 million tons over the same period. Source: Solar Energy Industry Association analysis based on data from Wood Mackenzie, IREC National Solar Jobs Census

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Daisie Hobson

Daisie Hobson is a Director at the Reshoring Institute and an engineer with many years of experience in manufacturing and project management.

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