The True Cost of Chinese Solar Panels

By Brian Lombardozzi
Photo by flickr user demmbatz.

Is the trade in clean energy like solar panels dirtier than it appears?

This is the first in a series of posts; read parts two, three and four

This Sunday, more than 400,000 people turned out for the People's Climate March in New York City to, in their words, demand “a world with an economy that works for people and the planet; a world safe from the ravages of climate change; a world with good jobs, clean air and water, and healthy communities.”

Organizers timed this to coincide with Tuesday’s convening of 120 world leaders, including President Barack Obama, at the United Nations, with hopes of impressing their concerns on the discussion of ways to tackle the growing threat of carbon pollution.

The People’s Climate March brought thousands of participants to midtown Mahnattan.

Many see further deployment of renewable energy, like solar, as a major way of addressing this threat. But if solar energy is to deliver on its potential to contribute to a world with good jobs, clean air and water, and healthy communities, we all need to be paying attention to the true costs of how solar panels are manufactured.

Clean Energy, Clean Industry?

The trillions of dollars set to be invested in renewable energy over the next decade have set in motion a global competition to dominate the renewables market. Massive investments and government subsidies have helped grow the market and are bringing down the price of electricity generated with renewable energy, yet the highly competitive market for solar panel manufacturing remains vulnerable to distortion and unfair and unjust practices.

The price of solar panels has been falling due to a number of factors, including improvements in technology and increased supply chain efficiency. These decreases are often the result of significant government investment, and have resulted in increased access to renewable energy for consumers.  But it’s not all above board: illegal subsidies from the Chinese government to its to exporting solar manufacturers have distorted the price of solar panels worldwide, and have flooded the global market with artificially cheap panels that violate World Trade Organization rules.

However, the proliferation of cheap Chinese solar panels depends on more than just government support. The low price relies on China’s notoriously poor environmental protections, and the dangerous working conditions in its mines and factories. While China’s environment may benefit in the long-term from a strong renewable energy industry, “for the time being the industry continues to tread the traditional path of ‘pollute first, clean up afterwards.’ China’s shining solar industry, while enabling blue skies elsewhere, is leaving behind a scarred landscape at home.

Consequences, Consequences

The influx of these artificially cheap solar panels into the market has also depressed a legitimate solar manufacturing industry in the U.S., one which is regulated by U.S. environmental and labor laws and that in 2013 employed over 29,851 people.

Unfortunately, while some see imported cheap Chinese solar panels as a boon for more rapid deployment of renewable energy, these cheap imports not only threaten U.S. domestic manufacturing jobs in the sector but expose many communities in China to further pollution. In the Chinese government’s pursuit of economic growth, there is little enforcement of its already weak – and in some cases, nonexistent – environmental and labor protections. As a result, pollution at manufacturing facilities continues unabated exposing workers and the general public to a growing mix of toxic chemicals.  

As a strong supporter of domestic manufacturing, I don’t like to see good U.S. jobs under threat. And as someone who wants to live in a world with an economy that works for both people and the planet, I don’t like to see workers anywhere subjected to abject working conditions and the communities they live in devastated by pollution. With all the events this week occurring around Climate Week NYC, over the next few days I will be sharing some examples that will hopefully help assure that we don’t continue to build our own renewable energy future at the expense of communities we don’t see. Instead, we can and should take full advantage of manufacturing industry in the U.S. that is regulated by tough U.S. environmental and labor laws many before us struggled to attain.

Much of this has been made possible by the excellent research skills of Michael Mignano and Erin Kelly.