Diverse solar panel supply chains: Required to transition to net zero

A report released today – 7 July 2022 – by the International Energy Agency has emphasised the necessity of diverse solar panel supply chains in the transition to net zero.

The global supply chains for solar panels are heavily concentrated in China

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has emphasised that in order to ensure a secure transition to net zero emissions, increased efforts to expand and diversify the global production of solar panels is required. Currently, the global supply chains for solar panels are heavily concentrated in China.

Chinese industrial and innovation policies focused on expanding solar panel production and markets have helped solar PV become the most affordable electricity generation technology in many parts of the world. However, the special report conducted by the IEA on solar PV supply chains has revealed that these policies have also led to imbalances in solar PV supply chains.

Additionally, over the last decade, the global manufacturing capacity for solar panels has increasingly moved out of Europe, Japan, and the United States and into China, which has taken the lead in investment and innovation. China’s share in all the key manufacturing stages of solar panels currently exceeds 80%, according to the IEA’s most recent report. Furthermore, for key elements, including polysilicon and wafers, this is set to rise to more than 95% in the coming years, based on the current manufacturing capacity under construction.

“China has been instrumental in bringing down costs worldwide for solar PV, with multiple benefits for clean energy transitions,” explained Fatih Birol, IEA Executive Director. “At the same time, the level of geographical concentration in global supply chains also poses potential challenges that governments need to address. Accelerating clean energy transitions around the world will put further strain on these supply chains to meet growing demand, but this also offers opportunities for other countries and regions to help diversify production and make it more resilient.”

Diverse solar panel supply chains are required to make global deployment possible

In order to meet international energy and climate goals, the global deployment of solar PV is required to grow on an unprecedented scale. This demands a major additional expansion in manufacturing capacity, raising concerns about the world’s ability to rapidly develop resilient supply chains. For example, annual additions of solar PV capacity to electricity systems around the world need to more than quadruple by 2030 to be aligned with the IEA’s pathway to reaching net zero emissions by 2050. Thus, global production capacity for the key building blocks of solar panels, such as polysilicon, ingots, wafers, cells, and modules, would be required to more than double by 2030 from today’s levels and existing production facilities would also have to be modernised.

“As countries accelerate their efforts to reduce emissions, they need to ensure that their transition towards a sustainable energy system is built on secure foundations,” noted Dr Birol. “Solar PV’s global supply chains will need to be scaled up in a way that ensures they are resilient, affordable and sustainable.”

Increased attention surrounding solar PV’s manufacturing supply chains

Governments and other stakeholders around the world have begun to pay increasing attention to solar PV’s manufacturing supply chains as high commodity prices and supply chain bottlenecks have led to an increase of approximately 20% in solar panel prices over the last year. However, these challenges – particularly apparent in the market for polysilicon, a key material for making solar panels – have resulted in delays in solar PV deliveries across the globe and higher prices. The IEA’s report argues that these challenges call for even greater attention and efforts by policymakers going forward.

Additionally, the IEA’s report also examines solar PV supply chains from raw materials all the way to the finished product, covering areas such as energy consumption, emissions, employment, production costs, investment, trade, and financial performance. It finds, for example, that the electricity-intensive manufacturing of solar PV is mostly powered by fossil fuels today because of the prominent role of coal in the parts of China where production is concentrated.

However, solar panels are still only required to operate for four to eight months to offset their manufacturing emissions. Thus, this brief payback period compares with the average solar panel lifetime of approximately 25 to 30 years. Increasing decarbonisation of electricity supplies and greater diversification of solar PV supply chains should collectively help to reduce this footprint in the future, emphasises the report.

Opportunities and challenges of developing PV supply chains

As diversification is one of the key strategies for reducing supply chain risks worldwide, the IEA’s special report evaluates the opportunities and challenges of developing solar PV supply chains in terms of job creation, investment requirements, manufacturing costs, emissions, and recycling. It reveals that novel solar PV manufacturing facilities along the global supply chain could attract $120bn of investment by 2030. And the solar PV sector has the potential to double the number of PV manufacturing jobs to one million by 2030, with the most job-intensive areas in the manufacturing of modules and cells.

Furthermore, the report summarises policy approaches that governments have taken to support domestic solar PV manufacturing, and highlights priority areas for action to improve the security of supply and address key challenges, such as environmental and social sustainability, investment risks and cost competitiveness.

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