We typically think of solar panels as the ultimate in green energy, but the way many of them are made can put them squarely in the category of substantial polluters.
China dominates the world in terms of solar panel manufacturing and uses a lot of electricity in the process. "In China that electricity overwhelmingly comes from coal-burning power plants," says Matthew Dalton, Paris correspondent for the WSJ and author of the article Behind the Rise of US Solar Power, a Mountain of Chinese Coal.
"Chinese-made panels (generate) roughly twice as much carbon dioxide as the equivalent panel made in Europe," he adds, making an almost hypothetical comparison since European panel makers have been decimated by Chinese competition.
The largest Chinese manufacturers are companies that most consumers have never heard of, further decoupling their processes from the clean, scrubbed image portrayed by large solar installers like Sunrun, Momentum Solar, or Trinity Solar.
Dalton writes that "the solar industry's reliance on Chinese coal ... as manufacturers rapidly scale up production of solar panels to meet demand ... would make the solar industry one of the world's most prolific polluters." It's a conclusion that will be almost incomprehensible to the homeowner who thinks their rooftop solar system makes them the neighborhood environmental hero.
But just as there's a where grid energy is already fairly clean, the earn-back of panel manufacturing emissions might be measured in years., there can also be an emissions earn-back. "If you live in an area where you're consuming a lot of coal-fired electricity, those emissions can be paid back very quickly," says Dalton, assuming you install a substantial solar system and optimize your household power use to times when the panels are producing. In areas such as California, however,
The Wall Street Journal's Matthew Dalton went on to talk about an international scheme that might solve the problem of dirty panel manufacturing in China. Hear about it in his video conversation with CNET's Brian Cooley
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