China’s Solar Panels Come at a Dirty Cost

China today accounts for more than half of the world’s photovoltaic (PV) production, and the vast majority of Chinese-produced solar panels make their way to the international market. While this flood of cheap panels has been credited for fueling a swell in the global use of solar power, it has also led many countries to set up anti-dumping duties against Chinese manufacturers and investigate unfair government subsidies. A recent report from Northwestern University and the U.S. Department of Energy has found that the relative low price of producing solar panels in China is offset by a steep environmental cost. The New York Times reports:

Weaker environmental standards and the more highly polluting sources of energy used by Chinese manufacturers are the reasons for the discrepancy, according to research by Northwestern University and the United States Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

[...] The environmental cost of Chinese- made solar panels is about twice that of those made in Europe, said Fengqi You, a corresponding author of the paper, which will be published in next month’s issue of the journal Solar Energy.

‘‘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.’’ [Source]

Pollution created by solar panel factories in China has in the past led concerned locals to protest. China reportedly depends on fossil fuels for 87 percent of its energy use, and a heavy reliance on coal has recently been predicted to continue growing. Meanwhile, amid a central government “war on pollution,” the National Development and Reform Commission has announced plans to increase China’s development of renewable energy and cut back on coal.