Chinese solar panels may be the world’s cheapest, but they have one drawback that should give green advocates pause. A new study of the full production chain of Chinese-made panels found that the environmental costs of their manufacture are roughly double those of their more expensive counterparts in Europe. The New York Times reports:
‘‘While it might be an economically attractive option to move solar panel manufacturing from Europe to China, it is actually less sustainable from the life cycle energy and environmental perspective — especially under the motivation of using solar panels for a more sustainable future,’’ Dr. You, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern, said in a news release last week from the Argonne National Laboratory. […]
Sometimes the environmental costs of solar panel production can be lost among the drive to encourage the development of clean energy, said Huang Xianjin, a professor at Nanjing University who studies land use.
‘‘In China, we have a lot of photovoltaic makers, and it’s something that’s been encouraged by the government,’’ he said. ‘‘But there’s also a lot of pollution that comes from that.’’
Greens like to tout the drop in prices for solar panels in recent years, but this phenomenon has largely been driven by heavily subsidized, low quality, and apparently energy intensive Chinese solar panels. Solar panels have a role to play in future energy mixes, but the way we’re currently going about it doesn’t make much sense. Europe, China, and even the U.S. are caught in a race to the bottom, trying to out-do one another in subsidizing various levels of panel production in order to sell the cheapest panels—panels that still struggle to compete with fossil fuels on price.
We’d be better off funding further research and development of renewables, with the aim of producing panels or turbines capable of elbowing their way into energy mixes on their own merits. The alternative is to continue flooding the market with a product of dubious quality and questionable green value, which, if environmentalists were honest with themselves, is no solution at all.