Making ultra low-carbon solar the global standard to decarbonize the PV industry’s supply chain

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Polysilicon market analyst Johannes Bernreuter knows the solar polysilicon sector and the global solar supply chain as well as anyone.

In his recent opinion piece, he notes that there is sufficient polysilicon manufacturing capacity outside the Xinjiang region of China to service the U.S. and EU solar markets. The focus on Xinjiang reflects significant sustainability concerns with the industry there – heavy reliance on coal-fired electricity in this energy-intensive sector and the alleged use of forced labor.

Michael Parr

He also argues that a major realignment of the global solar supply chain to entirely avoid Xinjiang polysilicon, which currently represents almost one-half of the world’s total, “will be no cakewalk.”

I agree. But there is more to the story for the global solar industry and solar buyers.

Bernreuter cites my comments to pv magazine USA about the goals of the Ultra Low-Carbon Solar Alliance to decarbonize the solar supply chain and the availability of low-carbon polysilicon in the U.S. and EU. The point I made, which he noted himself, was that this cleaner polysilicon capacity (as well as hydro-powered polysilicon plants in eastern China) was sufficient to provide the U.S. and EU markets with ultra low-carbon solar modules made without Xinjiang polysilicon.

More importantly, I expressed the view that this is merely a first step and if we stop there, we have missed an important opportunity to decarbonize the solar industry.

Solar manufacturing is slated to grow dramatically in the coming decades, to the tune of 10x by 2050 according to DNV GL. If we merely redistribute existing solar production and this growth continues to be concentrated in Xinjiang, carbon pollution associated with solar manufacturing will skyrocket. This would be a deeply ironic prospect for “clean energy.”

A compact industry

Combating climate change and decarbonizing any major industrial sector is indeed no cakewalk, but it is a critical component of achieving a net zero carbon economy. In fact, we have seen global industries like steel, cement and glass take major steps in this direction. Major investors like Blackrock are urging companies to assess their Scope 3 supply chain emissions as part of their carbon reduction goals.

Solar is a more compact industry with fewer tier 1 suppliers than many heavy industries, making it an easier prospect for decarbonizing.

Many corporations have significant renewable energy initiatives to help meet their ESG goals, and they need to consider these supply chains as well. Notably, solar is a more compact industry with fewer tier 1 suppliers than many heavy industries, making it an easier prospect for decarbonizing. A strong signal from solar buyers that they will only buy modules with low embodied carbon, which essentially means made without coal-fired polysilicon, can drive solar manufacturers to reduce these emissions.

It won’t happen overnight and carbon-sensitive developed economies will surely go first. We believe, however, that by making ultra low-carbon solar a global standard over time, solar buyers and policy makers can send a clear message to the industry that the next major tranche of growth in solar manufacturing must be much cleaner.

Making this transition means locating polysilicon and ingot plants in hydro- and other renewables-rich regions rather than coal-intensive regions. It means higher levels of energy efficiency in those plants. It means a widespread, intentional focus on reducing the carbon footprint of solar manufacturing.

We believe that market demand is a very important element of driving that focus. Companies produce what customers want to buy, and if companies only buy solar modules made with lower carbon footprints, whether directly or in PPAs, that is what the solar industry will produce.

For the solar PV industry and the polysilicon segment in particular, we should stop relying on predominantly coal-fired manufacturing. We must transform the global solar supply chain to become truly sustainable.

Michael Parr is the executive director of the Ultra Low-Carbon Solar Alliance.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

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