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Increasingly There Are Tools Available to Help

As Matt Dalton makes clear in his recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, a large proportion of the manufacturing of the components in solar panels occurs in China, and much of that manufacturing is powered by burning coal – and a lot of it. Dalton notes that as a result, while all solar panels are superior to fossil fuels, not all solar panels are created equal.

Solar panels made in that Chinese supply chain have roughly twice the embodied carbon (pollution associated with manufacturing) as solar panels made in the much cleaner solar supply chain in places like the US and the EU with renewables rich power grids. With solar manufacturing growing dramatically to meet rising global demand, this reliance on coal in Western China mean billions of tons of additional carbon pollution over the next two decades. The current trajectory of solar energy is, inexplicably, expanding the use of coal contrary to the global shift to renewable energy.

Because China is such a large producer of solar panels, many leading companies with strong sustainability pledges have been unknowingly using these “coal-fired solar” panels in large numbers. They are increasingly realizing that they are not getting what they planned on and are, in fact, subsidizing dirty manufacturing. This growing awareness is driving newfound demand for low-carbon solar panels.

Dalton notes that there are already manufacturers situated in clean solar supply chains producing panels with low embodied carbon, and the market is responding well to these advantages. For example, First Solar continues to expand its production of low embodied carbon thin film solar panels in Ohio, and both LG and Q CELLS have built significant low-carbon panel manufacturing plants in the US in recent years. Meyer Burger has just built a brand-new plant in Germany to produce highly efficient, low-carbon solar panels with the latest technology.

Manufacturers across the solar supply chain, including the three solar grade polysilicon producers in the US, report growing market interest in their products specifically because they have low embodied carbon. Solar buyers are saying loudly and clearly that they want this better solar. Both the members of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, a collection of major companies, and the US Government intend to buy solar panels with lower embodied carbon.

The Biden Administration is working to expand the US solar supply chain, as is the US Congress, such as Senator Jon Ossoff’s recently introduced Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Act. The EU is pursuing similar goals, and the EU and US are collaborating on an integrated “friend shoring” approach that reflects their well linked solar industries. The goal is to expand the supply of cleaner solar panels through a more resilient, more secure supply chain. We need to make solar manufacturing more sustainable and end our overdependence on a single source for our fastest-growing energy source, one that is so critical to the nation’s climate-related goals.

In short, change is afoot. But the question remains, how will buyers navigate the needed changes in this at times opaque supply chain? Thankfully, the Global Electronics Council, the organization behind the very successful EPEAT eco-labels that have helped companies and governments buy more sustainably produced office electronics goods, is developing an Ultra Low-Carbon Solar eco-label with robust third-party validation that will give solar buyers confidence in specifying better solar in their projects and power purchase agreements. A clear market preference for more sustainable solar will send a powerful signal to solar manufacturers about how to power their next plant.

With that game-changing standard, set to be deployed next year, we can make clean energy even cleaner by buying better solar.