If you think solar panels are the ultimate in clean, green tech, think again

If they're made in China, they may have a long carbon trail to work off. Now what?

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.

Matthew Dalton, correspondent, Wall Street Journal

Matthew Dalton, Paris Correspondent, Wall Street Journal

Wall Street Journal

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

Can solar panels save you money?

Interested in understanding the impact solar can have on your home? Enter some basic information below, and we’ll instantly provide a free estimate of your energy savings.

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. 

zngcJinko Solar factory-pic

Solar panel manufacturing is clean on the inside but if its powered by coal-fired electricity it can be a different story in the environment.

Jinko Solar

But just as there's a cost earn-back associated with rooftop solar, 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, where grid energy is already fairly clean, the earn-back of panel manufacturing emissions might be measured in years. 

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

Considering Solar Panels?
Our email course will walk you through how to go solar


Now What is a video interview series with industry leaders, celebrities and influencers that covers trends impacting businesses and consumers amid the "new normal." There will always be change in our world, and we'll be here to discuss how to navigate it all.

Article updated on September 27, 2021 at 9:57 AM PDT

Our Experts

Written by 
Brian Cooley
CNET staff -- not advertisers, partners or business interests -- determine how we review the products and services we cover. If you buy through our links, we may get paid. Reviews ethics statement
Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
Expertise Automotive technology, Smart home, Digital health Credentials
  • 5G Technician, ETA International
Why You Can Trust CNET
Experts Interviewed
Companies Reviewed
Products Reviewed

We thoroughly evaluate each company and product we review and ensure our stories meet our high editorial standards.