Chinese Companies Dominate the Solar Energy – but Panel Waste is a Concern
Solar energy is the fastest-growing form of electricity generation in the world now, outpacing coal, nuclear and gas. While they may produce energy with fewer emissions, the increasing amount of panel waste is a concern.
There are numerous advantages to using solar power instead of fossil fuels, as it can be used to power up everything from power plants to households. It reduces our carbon footprint and helps to combat climate change. It is altogether a more efficient power system compared to producing energy from coal and oil.
Although solar energy was in use as early as the 7th-century BCE, when humans used sunlight to light fires with magnifying glass materials, it wasn’t used as an alternative energy source on a big scale until recently.
Almost half a century ago, thanks to the 1973 oil crisis, the western world noticed its dependency on oil was damaging the economy. This energy crisis catalyzed a search for alternative energy sources and, therefore, commitment to developing solar. Since 1973, solar energy has emerged from being virtually non-existent to become a significant player in the energy market today.
Until a few years ago, the US and Europe were leading the renewable energy and solar power sectors. Outside Europe and the US, the cost of borrowing money for renewable projects was considerably higher.
Fortunately, this situation has changed dramatically due to the plummeting cost of solar in the past decade. Today the bulk of new projects and investments is in emerging economies – and particularly in China.
If you fly over ‘Datong County’ in northern China, you’ll see two giant pandas. One is waving at you. Later you will notice that they are actually made of thousands of solar panels. Together with the other adjacent panels included, they form a 100-megawatt farm covering 248 acres.
“It is designed and built as the image of the Chinese national treasure – the giant panda,” explains a document from Panda Green Energy, the company that constructed the farm.
China has made tremendous progress in developing solar projects and pledged to invest 2.5 trillion yuan (USD 367 billion) in renewable power generation – solar, wind, hydro and nuclear – from 2017-2020. Solar energy in hundreds of Chinese cities is now cheaper than electricity supplied by the national grid, and it can even compete with coal-fired power in most of them.
Furthermore, China has been the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panel technology since 2008. “The market is massive, it is like the industrial policy for the government,” says Yvonne Liu at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a market research firm. Additionally, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) more than 60% of the world’s solar panels are made in China.
Moreover, the country is also driving down solar prices around the world thanks to the scale of production and learning curve effects, according to Sam Geall, a China climate and energy expert at Chatham House.
“For China, this is mainly driven by national self-interest: the government sees that solar power can help the country enhance energy security and resilience, mitigate urban air pollution, and position the country as the world’s leading supplier of the clean technologies of the future,” Geall says.
Several major manufacturers dominate China’s solar power industry. They include Trina Solar, CHINT Group Corporation, JA Solar Holdings, Xinyi Solar Holdings (968: HK), Jinniu Energy, Suntech Power, Yingli and China Sunergy (NASDAQ: CSUN).
Trina Solar Limited is a solar manufacturing company located in the province of Jiangsu, with numerous branches in the US, Europe, Asia and Latin America. Founded in 1997, the company delivers PV products, applications, and services to promote global sustainable development. Aside from that, their downstream business includes solar PV project development, financing, design, construction, operations and management and one-stop system integration solutions for customers. In addition, for the past few years, Trina Solar has been constantly listed on the Fortune list of the top 100 of the world’s fastest-growing companies.
Founded in 2006, China Sunergy is a solar cell and panel products manufacturer based in Nanjing, Jiangsu. The company specializes in creating solar cells from silicon wafers, and they both use monocrystalline and multi-crystalline silicon solar cells for this. Their primary customer base is in China, but they also sell their products worldwide. In fact, in May 2013, China Sunergy opened its first international manufacturing base in Turkey. This made the company the only Chinese solar cells and module manufacturer with a base in Europe.
Currently, China Sunergy has a production capacity of 1.2 GW and an installed capacity of more than 1.4 GW all over the world.
Founded in 2005, JA Solar Holdings is a solar development company based in Yangpu district, Shanghai. The company’s business covers the design, development, manufacturing, and sale of silicon wafers, batteries, modules, and photovoltaic power plants. Additionally, they are also engaged in the manufacturing and sales of monocrystalline and multi-crystalline solar cells.
The company, formerly known as Yingli Green Energy Holding Company Limited, is a solar company in Baoding, Hebei province. The company’s business covers the manufacturing of the photovoltaic value chain from ingot casting and wafering through solar production and solar panel assembly.
At present, Yingli has shipped more than 85 million solar panels (representing over 20 GW) to more than 90 countries in the world, particularly in Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, France, South Korea, Japan, Australia and the US.
Shunfeng International Clean Energy:
The company aims to create a low-carbon environment through its integrated photovoltaic services and solar power station constructions and operations, and the manufacturing of solar power products as well as solar energy storage. Some of their products include solar wafers, solar cells, solar modules, as well as inverters and fast-charging devices. Aside from the production, manufacturing, and sale of these products, SFCE Solar is also engaged in research development and operations in other forms of green energy.
As in any emerging industry, global solar installations increased tenfold during the 2010s. Producers have had trouble calibrating supply to demand and staying profitable. In mid-2018, when the Chinese government cut its subsidies for solar energy, the sector pitched into crisis. Domestic installations fell by more than 15 percent, and stocks dropped by more than a third.
Although the Chinese demand contracted again in 2019, demand from the rest of the world made up for it. Solar-module exports from China jumped 90 percent in the first half of last year on vigorous orders ranging from the Netherlands to Vietnam.
While the success of Chinese companies shows the importance of state support of infant industries and public-private partnerships, growing panel waste highlights another important state instrument – regulations.
On the one hand, heavy state subsidies certainly put the industry on its feet. “As recently as 2017, the US and European competitors were the best in the business,” PV Infolink’s Lin says. “Yet the ingenuity and economy of the privately-owned Chinese companies are making solar prices competitive way ahead of schedule.
On the other hand, oversaturation of the industry and low regulations have led to a growing amount of panel waste. All produced solar panels have an expire date to produce energy properly. Currently, most solar panels are guaranteed to last for a period of 20 to 30 years. China alone is set to produce 20 million tons of solar panel waste by 2050, according to a 2016 estimate from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
Furthermore, Chinese solar panel manufacturers have faced protests from locals who accuse them of mishandling hazardous waste. To illustrate, in 2011, Jinko Solar apologized for dumping toxic waste following violent protests sparked by the death of large numbers of fish in a nearby river, Reuters reported.
To sum up, solar technology produces energy with fewer emissions. Chinese companies are leading the global solar race in terms of their production capacity. However, industry regulations are required to prevent increasing solar panel waste. In order to gain full green credentials, those companies need to find innovative solutions to reduce their waste while leading the global solar power race.