While the U.S. and China face different roadblocks in scaling solar energy, the importance of reducing costs is universal.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.– Solar is at or near grid parity in several world markets, a phenomenon that used to be viewed as unattainable, Jeff Juger, Director of Business Development at Jinko Solar, explained at UNC’s Clean Tech Summit. Juger has over 10 years of solar industry experience and believes that there are significant strides to be made in reducing the price of solar electricity.
Grid parity occurs when an alternative energy source can generate power at a cost that is less than or equal to the price of power from the electricity grid (think dirty sources like coal or oil).
Shanghai-based Jinko Solar is the largest solar panel manufacturer in the world, with 15,000 employees across 7 production facilities globally. The company can produce a 6-foot crystalline solar panel- which is made of silicon, or essentially sand — in China for about $70. But by the time this panel could reach a U.S. consumer, it would cost $140, a result of the steep tariffs brought by the trade war.
But solar panels are more expensive in the U.S. than other markets for reasons beyond tariffs, Teaching Assistant Professor in the Environment, Ecology and Energy Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Dr. Leda Van Doren explained.
The costs of production in countries like India or China are much lower because of labor costs, she said. Europe tends to have higher costs of production, but many projects utilize imported solar panels from countries like China. Others have policies in place to support the local manufacturing of panels.
Despite considerable cost reductions for U.S. consumers over the past decade, solar energy is not yet affordable enough to bring to scale. Solar power currently represents only about 1.5 % of the national electricity mix, Van Doren continued.
To reach the “tipping point” where both conservatives striving for energy independence and progressives fighting climate change are satisfied, Juger believes manufacturing in the lowest-cost regions and increased accessibility of solar project permitting is the answer.
Federal investment in solar research is also crucial in reducing costs, he continued.
“It’s paved the way for commercialization of technologies and solar businesses. Innovation is the key to tapping the full potential of solar and helping reduce its costs.”
Fossil fuels still account for the majority of power generation in both the U.S. and Chinese markets. China has a weaker grid infrastructure and a shortage of voltage transmission lines but greater support of such initiatives at the national level.
One CleanTech attendee remarked on the shortcomings of the U.S. to leverage its capacities of a comprehensive energy grid and skilled workforce, after hearing Juger speak on China’s geological barriers.
“By connecting our already expansive electrical grid, the United States could effectively capitalize on existing Chinese solar technology, disseminating solar power to a much wider populace,” Jared Goldman, a junior computer science and math major said.
While Chinese and U.S. markets have different sets of challenges to face in scaling solar, Juger stressed that no matter how you look at it, deploying more solar energy is a good thing.
“The fuel is free. There are no accidents, no toxic spills,” he explained while beaming and projecting a billboard that read: When there’s a huge solar energy spill, it’s just called a ‘nice day.’
By Carlyann Edwards.