Here’s Why Your Solar Panel Was Probably Made In China


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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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China is selling an enormous number of heavily subsidized solar panels to the U.S., but they’re not very green, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Chinese government offered solar companies lucrative tax incentives and subsidies in addition to a low-wage, but relatively skilled workforce. The country spent more than $80 billion subsidizing new green energy in 2014 alone, while the US spent a “mere” $34 billion. These subsidies created a glut of solar panels globally, which cut into the profit margins of non-Chinese solar companies.

The net impact of solar panels actually temporarily increased carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions due to how much energy is used in their construction, according to a study published earlier this month. This European Union government sponsored research concluded that since large scale solar panel production began almost 40 years ago, the entire net effect was probably to increase CO2 emissions.

“If there was ever a situation where the Chinese have put their whole governmental system behind manufacturing, it’s got to be solar modules,” Ken Zweibel, a former Department of Energy analyst, told Scientific American. “I think they think they can wipe out all the competition in the world. It makes all kinds of sense if you have the staying power.”

Even though China plans to triple domestic wind power capacity and greatly expand domestic solar power by 2030 to reduce its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the country still relies mostly on coal power for domestic electricity.
The country consumes approximately half of all coal used worldwide and gets roughly 66 percent of its electricity from coal, according to the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration.

Coal power is the most CO2 intensive of electricity generation, and China has no plans to cut back. Of the 2,400 coal-fired power plants under construction or being planned around the world, 1,171 will be built in China. Consumption of coal in China has already grown by a factor of three from 2000 to 2013.

The Chinese government has already stopped approving new wind power projects in the country’s windiest regions, according to a March statement by China’s National Energy Administration. These regions previously installed nearly 71 gigawatts of wind turbines, more than the rest of China combined. A single gigawatt of electricity is enough to power 700,000 homes. Government statistics show that 33.9 billion kilowatt-hours of wind power, or about 15 percent of all Chinese wind power, was wasted in 2015 alone.

Beijing has ordered wind and solar operators to stop expanding four times in the last five years because unreliable and intermittent power was damaging the country’s power grid and costing the government enormous amounts of money. The best areas for wind turbines and solar panels in China are far away from the coastal provinces where most of its population lives, and building the infrastructure to transmit the electricity over long distances is enormously expensive and could cost many times the price of generating the power.

The amount of electricity generated by solar panels or wind turbines is very intermittent and doesn’t coincide with the times of day when power is most needed. This poses an enormous safety challenge to grid operators and makes power grids vastly more fragile.

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