Speaker 1: A lot of people put solar panels on their house for two or three major reasons. One, they wanna stick it to their utility and save a lot of money. But the other one is often to do the right thing environmentally to reduce their environmental footprint. But what if the manufacturer of those supposedly green solar panels actually throws a ton of missions into the environment that most of us didn't think about now what
Speaker 1: Matthew Dalton is Paris [00:00:30] correspondent for the wall street journal. His piece is called behind the rise of us solar power, a mountain of Chinese coal. Let's get into that headline Matthew, uh, right. And the near the top of your piece, the solar industry's reliance on Chinese coal will create a big increase in emissions in coming years that could make the solar industry. One of the world's most prolific polluters for most of us, our heads began to spin around. When we read that and say, wait a minute, I thought solar industry was the cleanest thing out there. What's going on here.
Speaker 2: [00:01:00] China is home to the world's dominant solar panel, um, industry, all of the world's biggest or most of the world's biggest manufacturers are Chinese. Uh, more than 80% of the world's solar panels, roughly speaking, uh, are made in China. And that percentage is probably going to increase in the coming years. Um, and most of those panels are produced with poly Silicon that's made in China. Poly Silicon is the key raw material for most of the solar [00:01:30] panels out there. Manufacturing solar, uh, poly Silicon is, is an extremely energy intensive and electricity intensive process in China that electricity overwhelmingly comes from, um, the coal burning power plants. Um, it's been a deliberate policy of the Chinese government to, uh, set up poly Silicon factories, um, that are in regions where there's a lot of coal-fired electricity. Coal-fired electricity in these regions, such as Jang and Western [00:02:00] China, inner Mongolia. That electricity is very cheap. So it makes the poly Silicon manufacturer very competitive. It makes the entire solar panel, Chinese solar panel industry, very competitive.
Speaker 1: A lot of people, certainly people who buy residential solar for example, will leave out, you know, commercial rooftops, they'll buy it saying, okay, there's a certain earn back period by which I will get my money back. In terms of energy car cost savings. Is there a similar ballpark or rule of thumb in terms of back on emission?
Speaker 2: [00:02:30] The normally when you're, when you're talking about, um, a made panel and made panels roughly takes roughly twice as much carbon dioxide than equivalent panel made in Europe. And, um, there really is very little solar panel history left in Europe. So it's a bit of a hypothetical figure, but that's the estimate, um, that that payback can be depending on it depends where you live. So if you live in an area where there's a lot of coal fired [00:03:00] electricity, um, and you're consuming a lot of coal fired electricity, and you put in, uh, a panel, that's going to stop that amount. You're not gonna be using that amount of coal fired electricity anymore. Over the course of the panel's lifetime that can be paid back. Those emissions can be paid back very quickly. You, um, less than a year sometimes, um, if you're living in an area that has a much cleaner grid that relies on either nuclear, hydro, or other kinds of renewables, [00:03:30] um, then the equation becomes a lot different. And in a few places with very low carbon intensity grids, there might not be any payback at all, depending on how long the panel is on the grid
Speaker 1: For that's so interesting because people figure that wasn't even a factor. It was strictly a matter of how fast do I earn back the money investment, uh, where I live here in Northern California, the utility tells us it's about 35, 40% is clean renewables. So I'll take [00:04:00] them at their word on that. So it sounds like I'm in a category as well as millions of other people. In some of those regions, you mentioned where the earn back's gonna be. It's gonna have longer legs to take out of the environment. What I cause to be put in. I wouldn't call it a negative, certainly, but it almost is one that gives pause to one putting in solar. In fact, the weak yours story came out, I think was the same week. I signed a contract to put solar on my roof. So I was kind of at that perfect crux of, okay, I have to really rethink this. I went ahead and did it.
Speaker 2: [00:04:30] Yeah, I, I think it's still even with when your grid is 35% renewables and then, you know, maybe you're at there's, there's probably some nuclear and hydro in there as well. Um, you, it's still probably making sense in California and California has a very, uh, a relatively low carbon electricity grid as the grid gets cleaner. The question of if we wanna keep on reducing emissions, um, at some point the emissions, in terms of [00:05:00] when you're talking about global emissions, at some point, you're gonna have to start looking at how, um, these various renewable energy technologies are manufactured. Um, and it's true that, that for renewable energy technology compared to coal fire electricity, solar is a lot better by any standard. But when, when you're talking about compared to other renewable energy technology, um, solar made, um, in China is relatively high emissions.
Speaker 1: Certainly the Biden administration, literally [00:05:30] within a day or two of us talking today is looking to radically ratchet up the amount of American power that comes from solar, I think specifically, uh, and so this is suddenly the, the crux issue around this because the cost savings, we assume we take that on faith and those are pretty straightforward and some resiliency against grid failures as people, couple solar with batteries. That one is pretty much a no brainer, but then this becomes the new issue around how to strategize solar at a [00:06:00] big scale. You mentioned earlier, uh, the basically only theoretical availability of European made panels that have a much lower carbon footprint. Is that essentially a non-industry at this point,
Speaker 2: Europe used to have a big solar panel industry. Um, and then China began ramping up production. Um, the Chinese government decided to make, uh, solar panel manufacturing, a, uh, strategic technology, a key technology. So through all kinds of government [00:06:30] support to its manufacturers, it, it did things, as I mentioned, like provide its poly Silicon manufacturers, lots of very cheap coal fired electricity, which made them very, uh, competitive. And that basically drove, um, Europe's industry outta business. And we want as many, uh, solar panels as we can get regardless, uh, where they come from because we have our, uh, renewable energy and climate change goals that we need to meet. So we're taking away the tariffs, the Chinese [00:07:00] panels are, are flooding into the European union right now. Um, and there's been, you know, there's been a surge of solar panel installations, U the us is a little different.
Speaker 2: Uh, the us still has a few manufacturers that are pretty strong, but they are waging this constant battle, a against, um, a Chinese imports in very low cost Chinese imports. And the us has sort of caught in the same dilemma that Europe is, uh, because it wants as many solar panels that can get. And one of the reason [00:07:30] why, um, one of the reasons why solar panels are being installed everywhere is because the price has come down. So, so, so dramatically in the last few of years, the reason why it's come down so dramatically China, um, that manufacturers have huge scale. All the government support, all that coal fired, cheap coal fired electricity has, has really, um, sent the price plummeting. And so that's, that's good for renewable energy in the us. Um, but if we're looking for, uh, [00:08:00] energy, self sufficiency, or electricity, self sufficiency with this particular technology, uh, it's, it's not happening.
Speaker 1: China's interesting because they have both vast products to do, uh, hydroelectric dams. We've all read stories about those vast valleys and, and, and towns or flooded to create high electric. And they're the leading embracing populous of electric cars, but at the same time they had this other side, like you say, where they'll throw cold, generated electricity at [00:08:30] anything. Is there any indication in your reporting that they might turn or be able to even turn their solar panel industry toward a cleaner source of power in manufacturing?
Speaker 2: France is one of the few countries in the world that has rules about the carbon footprint of the solar panels that can be installed for solar farms on its territory. And so they require, uh, a pretty detailed analysis from solar panel manufacturers [00:09:00] about how much carbon is emitted when they're producing these panels and they, and there's a, you, there's a ceiling there, and basically you cannot install a high carbon solar panel in France. So that's made it quite difficult for the Chinese, but some manufacturers have been some Chinese manufacturers haven't been responding to that by shifting some of their production to renewable energy, installing renewable energy sources, um, on their, uh, next to their [00:09:30] facilities to, to decarbonize their production for the French. It, um, there's, there is also some, uh, some poly Silicon manufacturing that relies on hydro power in China. So, um, the, that, what that shows to me, what that says to me is that the Chinese are very sensitive to a market signal. Um, when it is sent and France sent a very strong market signal that we want these particular low carbon solar panels. So we want you to do that, uh, [00:10:00] if the U if the us sends and it's a much larger market sends that kind of market signal to the Chinese, um, I bet they're gonna respond. The question is how do you verify that they're really doing all that stuff
Speaker 1: In conclusion then as you look at this moment in the solar end is, uh, solar panel industry. Uh, do you think that this is going to C cause enough of a curfuffle around various countries that are the big consumers of these panels that they're gonna put more roadblocks in the way of these quote, [00:10:30] dirty panels, the way, uh, France has with its sourcing regulations, or is this not even a hiccup, the growth curve of solar panel
Speaker 2: Adoptions, there's already movement to start putting those kinds of rules in place. Um, so the federal government is working on a policy that would, uh, require the panels that it purchases for federal facilities, and it purchases a lot of panels to be where possible lower carbon panels. So [00:11:00] that, that would be a pretty big signal already. Um, there are, uh, some big companies that are beginning to take this into account when they buy panels for, or invest in renewable energy projects. Um, they are gonna going to start examining the carbon and footprint of the panels that they buy. And, uh, so, so, and then the European union, um, is also thinking about this. I mean, I think it's quite an appealing thing for policy makers in the [00:11:30] west, because it would potentially rebuild the west solar panel industry if they can at all the signals. Right. Um, it would, it would be a way, uh, to, to encourage Western producers of the panels without just strictly and blatantly slapping tariffs on the Chinese producers, it, it would be an environmentally, um, valid reason to
Speaker 1: Do this. That's a very interesting way to get a lot of things done, not just [00:12:00] to assure that you have a clean overall life cycle with your country's panel adoption, but as you mentioned to perhaps revive an industry without using a, a sledge hammer, it is
Speaker 2: A bit more elegant. I think from the Chinese, they probably still view it as protectionist. Um, but, uh, I it's something that I think is coming down, coming down the
Speaker 1: Pike, I've been talking to Matthew Dalton, Paris correspondent for the wall street journal in his story behind the rise of us solar power, a mountain of Chinese coal, a [00:12:30] must read if you're considering solar for your Homer facility,