Solar brings energy independence, but only if we don’t rely on China
Dependencies on authoritarian states are coming under increased scrutiny, with democratic nations recognizing that they are, at best, critical vulnerabilities and, at worst, a direct threat. Built over years, these dependencies cannot be resolved overnight and can impede an effective economic response to acts of aggression and human rights abuses.
In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, influential voices have called for rethinking long-term energy security strategies and accelerating the deployment of renewable energy. Here in the United States, the Biden administration has identified solar power as an opportunity to secure our energy independence by obtaining “our fuel from our own sources of production.”
While it is true that democracies can take advantage of renewable energy to decouple from the autocracies that provide their fuel, it is not that simple. Sunlight is free fuel, but the solar panels needed to convert photons into electrons are not free. Indeed, the production of solar panels, and the value chain that allows them to be produced, is almost monopolized by China, which does not hide its contempt for democratic values and feeds its own expansionist ambitions.
Today, eight of the world’s ten largest solar manufacturers are linked to China. The country controls most of the world’s production of polysilicon, the semiconductor that forms the basis of the majority of the world’s solar panels. It also controls 99% of crystalline silicon wafer production and 80% of crystalline silicon cell production. As a result, the United States has been largely reduced to relying on imports either directly from China or via Southeast Asian Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries where Chinese manufacturers have implemented sets up assembly plants to allegedly circumvent anti-dumping duties.
China’s dominance in solar manufacturing is no coincidence. Its solar companies have systematically dismantled international competition by selling low-cost solar panels that are only possible because their manufacturers benefit from state subsidies and subsidize coal-fired electricity in violation of World Trade Organization rules. trade.
There are no altruistic motives for creating an artificial dependency on its solar industry. The Chinese government has essentially constructed another strategic vulnerability that it can exploit to its advantage. As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted, Beijing “…seeks to make China less dependent on the world and the world more dependent on China.”
We are already seeing the consequences of America’s reliance on Chinese solar supply chains. As the U.S. Department of Commerce has launched an investigation into possible anti-dumping and countervailing duty evasion by Chinese solar manufacturers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection prepares to enforce the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Law, the China appears to have retaliated by cutting the supply of solar panels to the United States.
If so, the message is clear: if the US government attempts to hold Chinese companies accountable to US laws, the country’s energy transition will suffer. And while China has demonstrated that it can and will cut off the United States in response to trade investigation and human rights law enforcement, it doesn’t take much imagination to recognize the risks posed by a more serious conflict.
The need to counter China’s dominance of solar manufacturing with a sustainable industrial policy is now more urgent than ever. We already have the technology and innovation needed to underpin this strategy, and with the right policies, we can easily achieve self-sufficiency well before the end of this decade.
However, America’s best hope for crafting energy self-sufficiency and securing essential clean energy supply chains, the Build Solar Power for America Act, rests with Congress. A continued delay in enacting this crucial legislation, even as Chinese solar companies have been given carte blanche to continue selling panels in the United States, could spell disaster for the US solar industry, which has already lost a major player. This year. It would also cripple any future efforts to rebuild decimated domestic capacities and supply chains.
The stalemate in which democracies find themselves today is arguably the result of decades of persistent short-sighted decision-making and wasted opportunities to build self-reliance. Congress needs to make sure we don’t repeat the same mistakes and act decisively. The time has come to do so.
Solar energy only brings independence if the supply of technology that converts photons into electrons is free from authoritarian influence and reflects the values and principles of the democratic nations that use it. Anything less is just another form of dependence on authoritarian energy and endangers the interests of our nation.
• Mark Widmar is CEO of First Solar, the largest US solar manufacturer.