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China’s coal pile behind the rise of US solar power

Solar panel installations are skyrocketing in the United States and Europe as Western countries seek to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

In the United States and Europe, the dependence of the photovoltaic industry on Chinese coal will significantly increase emissions over the next few years as manufacturers rapidly expand their production of solar panels to meet demand. There is growing concern. According to analysts, it will make the PV industry one of the most prolific polluters in the world and undermine some of the emission reductions achieved through widespread adoption.

Coal-fired Urumqi thermal power plant in western China.


Photo:

Mark Schiefelbein / Associated Press

For many years China’s low-cost coal-fired power It gave the country’s solar panel manufacturers a competitive advantage and allowed them to dominate the global market.

According to industry analyst Johannes Bern Reuters, factories in China supply more than three-quarters of the world’s polysilicon, an essential component of most solar panels. Polysilicon factories use processes that consume large amounts of electricity to refine silicon metals, giving access to cheaper electricity a cost advantage. Chinese authorities have built a series of coal-fired power plants in less populated areas such as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to support polysilicon manufacturers and other energy-hungry industries.

“”
“If China doesn’t have access to coal, solar power will not be cheap now.”


— Climate researcher Robbie Andrew

Fengqi You, a professor of energy systems engineering at Cornell University, says that manufacturing solar panels in China produces about twice as much carbon dioxide as it does in Europe. In countries and regions that do not rely heavily on fossil fuels for power generation, such as Norway and France, you said that installing high-carbon Chinese solar panels may not reduce emissions at all.

“Yes, we are beautiful,” you said. “But the process of getting these panels from another country (now China, perhaps somewhere later) produces a lot of emissions.”

However, scientists say that installing Chinese-made panels usually replaces the electricity generated from fossil fuels, which significantly reduces carbon dioxide emissions over time. Emissions avoided after the first few years of the 30-year life of a solar panel can offset the emissions required to produce it.

Workers will install solar panels in Rodin Laudun-l’s, France, which is largely independent of fossil fuels for power generation.


Photo:

Jeremy Suyker / Bloomberg News

Some western governments and businesses are trying to shift the PV industry from coal. Companies that buy renewable energy are laying the foundation for supporting low-carbon solar panels when funding solar projects. A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency said the US federal government has drafted a policy to do the same when buying solar panels. EU officials are also considering whether to regulate the carbon content of panels sold across blocks in 27 countries, EU officials said.

These policies will also help rebuild the declining western solar industry in competition with more polluted Chinese producers, Western executives say.

According to consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, US solar capacity has increased by 48% over the past two years. In Europe, it is up 34%. Tens of thousands of solar panels are shipped to these facilities each year.

“Large energy buyers can impact the supply chain,” he said.

Amazon.com Ltd,

Salesforce.com Ltd

And over 200 other companies. “We hope Solar will maintain a very high growth rate. We want to ensure that growth is sustainable.”

The dilemma becomes clearer as world leaders meet in Glasgow, Scotland in November, preparing to make new pushes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Part of that effort involves persuading China, the world’s largest emitter. Shift from coal-fired power Even when the West is using Chinese gear from solar panels to lightweight aluminum for electric vehicles, it will reduce emissions. China and India blocked an agreement to phase out coal-fired power generation at the Environment Ministers’ Meeting of a group of 20 major economies in July.

Finding an alternative is not easy. China’s surge in cheap polysilicon production has hurt US producers and has forced the closure of some factories that use power sources that emit less carbon than Chinese producers.

Wacker Chemie AG

According to the company’s spokesman, Christoph Bakumere, the largest producer of solar-grade polysilicon in the West pays up to four times more electricity at its German plant than the Chinese producer in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

China has cut panel prices so much that solar power is cheaper than electricity generated from fossil fuels in many markets around the world. Imports of solar cells that make up the panel are also flooding the United States and Europe.

These shipments are made directly from China or include key components made in China.

Robbie Andrew, Principal Researcher at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, said: “Is it okay to have this huge carbon emission from China because we were able to develop all these technologies really cheaply? You might not know that for another 30-40 years. . “

Some Chinese polysilicon producers are well suited to meet the western demand for low-carbon panels.

Tonway,

It is the largest producer in the world and has several factories operating on hydropower. but,

Daqo New Energy

According to both companies, Tongwei’s major Chinese competitor, GCL Poly, is overwhelmingly dependent on coal.

Daqo New Energy Corp., which operates the facility in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, is one of China’s polysilicon producers who are dependent on coal.


Photo:

Colon Murphy / Bloomberg News

France is one of the few countries that regulates the carbon content of solar panels, and large-scale solar projects require low-carbon panels. This has allowed some Chinese panel makers to use renewable energy in some processes and sell it to the French market. South Korea has adopted rules inspired by the French system this year, and other European countries have shown interest, local officials say.

China’s dominance of the solar supply chain is also difficult for a few companies in the West trying to rebuild their solar panel capacity. Most companies in China slice polysilicon into wafers, package wafers into cells, and assemble cells into panels. US tariffs on Chinese solar panels and cells have led Chinese companies to set up factories for these parts in other countries.

Jinko Solar,

Chinese company builds panel assembly plant in Florida

NextEra Energy,

One of the largest renewable energy companies in the United States. But wafers and polysilicon are made in China, analysts say.

Italian energy company

Eneru

SpA plans to expand one of the few remaining solar panel factories in Europe, but the factory still relies on silicon wafers made in China.

Antonello Iras, the factory manager in Sicily, said: “Think about sustainability, think about working conditions, think about logistics costs and proximity.”

Beijing has further hampered Western efforts by imposing tariffs on US polysilicon as part of a long-standing trade dispute over solar panels. As a result, US producers were unable to sell raw materials to China’s wafer mills, which account for more than 95% of the world’s production capacity, and few product buyers.

Tariff led

REC Silicon that’s why

In 2019, it will idle a carbon-free hydropower plant in Moses Lake, Washington. The company hoped that tariffs would be reduced through negotiations between the Trump administration and Beijing. Instead, Beijing extended tariffs for five years last year.

“Polysilicon has a lot of capacity. It would be nice to have a customer,” said David Feldman, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the US government.

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


Photo:

Bill Clark / Zuma Press

Write to Matthew Dalton Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com

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China’s coal pile behind the rise of US solar power

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