Solar power is dirtier than America thinks
Americans are installing more solar panels than ever. Nationwide shift to power generation using solar photovoltaic (PV) panels will be supported by Biden’s Build back better policy because it creates more clean energy jobs in the United States and extends clean energy tax credits. But most of the VPs America invests in are way dirtier than they should be. Why? China.
The use of coal-fired electricity and forced labor are prevalent in Chinese photovoltaic panel manufacturing practices. This is a critical issue for Americans and other global PV markets because in 2019, 80% photovoltaic panels around the world have been made in China.
From an environmental point of view, the use of dirty electricity is the main problem in photovoltaic production. Chinese solar panel factories are mainly powered by electricity produced by burning coal. Coal is the fossil fuel that generates the most greenhouse gases and pollutants, and produces solar panels in China creates around twice more carbon dioxide as being their manufacture in Europe.
So why are so many photovoltaic panels produced with electricity derived from coal? Coal is cheap. Because the manufacture of basic solar panel components is very energy intensive, companies logically choose installation sites with lower electricity costs. China’s Xinjiang Province has a collection of government-backed coal-fired power plants that produce large amounts of cheap electricity, attracting many factories to the region.
This is not the only problem. In China, Xinjiang is not unique in its use of coal-derived energy for solar panel production, but the top-producing province has also often made the news as a center of human rights abuses. government-led targeting of the local population. Muslim uyghur population. These human rights violations reportedly include forced labor, accusations of ethnic cleansing regimes and the mass imprisonment of large segments of the population. All Xinjiang Photovoltaic Plants directly reported their participation in the Uyghurs “labor transfer”Programs or are provided by commodity companies that have.
So why are Americans buying so many panels from China? The costs of solar panels made in China are, on average, Much lower than those of the American or European panels. Energy experts agree that the United States political factors also play a role in adopting Chinese panels over equally advantageous and affordable energy sources such as nuclear power. The Democratic Party, particularly U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and California Governor Gavin Newsom, believe that investing in low-cost solar power (which mainly comes from China) will be in the country’s best interest despite challenges. compelling national alternatives such as nuclear energy. They believe this in part because of an economic phenomenon known as the negative externality.
Negative externalities are unreflected “hidden” costs of manufacturing a good that are not represented in its purchase price and are therefore not immediately taken into account when businesses and individuals make purchasing decisions. . For Americans who buy Chinese solar panels, these negative externalities are twofold: the cost of global climate emissions from polluting panel production, and the reputation and social cohesion costs triggered by inaction in the face of human rights violations. Uyghurs who only indirectly impact Americans. .
US politicians, individuals and businesses support the adoption of solar energy for economic and moral reasons – because these groups believe that in the long run, the costs and environmental damage of solar will be lower than those of alternative sources. Solar’s “sustainable” label helps supporters feel impactful. Americans buy solar panels because they think they are do well for themselves, their communities and the world.
But the United States is not buying what it expects from China. Instead, Americans are simply distancing themselves from the impacts of manufacturing that are harmful to the environment and to society. They subconsciously prioritize their own safety over that of others, exposing Chinese workers, vulnerable minority groups and the international community to toxic and harmful practices with implications for health and society.
If America wants to generate clean energy responsibly, it cannot litter the soils and peoples of other nations and must also recognize that these practices will also have impacts on American soil later (through the global effects of climate change).
The United States has a clear path to follow. It must set clear standards for imported products, ensuring that all products consumed, not just produced, in the United States are produced responsibly. It needs to source solar panels from companies that generate electricity with minimal use of fossil fuels – for example, those located in areas where utilities produce large amounts of solar, wind or hydroelectric power. for installations. It must also establish concrete human rights expectations that encourage the consumption of products that are not directly involved in abuse.
Much of the responsibility also lies with Chinese companies and their government who established and perpetuated these low-cost manufacturing practices. China must stop violating the fundamental freedoms of its Uyghur citizens and must work to reduce domestic use of coal, especially on products for export. After all, it is not in China’s interest to pollute its own garden and oppress its own people in the name of producing “green” products.
All this implies significant market intervention, and to the extent that negative externalities are at work, economic and political research shows that such an intervention is necessary. But businesses and consumers can make better choices when sourcing their materials and move the global solar supply chain away from coal and forced labor. By establishing standard operating procedures that prioritize environmental and social responsibility, Chinese and international companies can avoid being involved in these harmful acts. Institutional and professional consumers can adopt more stringent standards in their purchasing policies, committing to meet the basic criteria for all products consumed, regardless of where they are made.
With the commitment of government, businesses and buyers, the solar energy market will move away from harmful practices and begin to accomplish its mission: to make the world a cleaner, cheaper and more sustainably electrified place for all.
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