Op-Ed: IPCC report proves why we can’t rely on coal-fired solar to solve the climate crisis

Steven Bohn, an engineer at SunEdison oversees SunEdison's testing facility at SolarTAC in Aurora, CO. The SolarTAC mission is to increase the efficiency of solar energy products and rapidly deploy them to the commercial market. (Courtesy: Science HD/Unsplash)

This Op-Ed was contributed by Michael Parr, executive director of the Ultra Low-Carbon Alliance

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a sobering report that confirms what’s increasingly obvious in our daily lives: we’ve polluted the atmosphere with so much carbon that we have already “locked-in” a 1.5-degree C rise in average global temperature over pre-industrial levels. If that doesn’t sound like much, just look around at the severe weather across the globe, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods. 

As the New York Times put it in its coverage of the report, “The dangers grow considerably, with 1 billion people worldwide sweltering in more frequent, life-threatening heat waves, hundreds of millions more will struggle for water because of severe droughts.”

But the report also warns that a 1.5-degree temperature rise is just the beginning if we fail to cut carbon pollution. The Times quotes one of the report’s authors: “Things are unfortunately likely to get worse than they are today.” As tough as things are getting now, the report shows that if we don’t act, we are on a track to a 3-or-more degree temperature rise. That’s why we have to rapidly accelerate decarbonization by halting carbon pollution altogether by 2050.

That’s a significant challenge, but it’s achievable if we take bold, decisive steps. What we can’t afford to do is to unwittingly move in the wrong direction. As Matt Dalton recently reported in The Wall Street Journal, there is a “Mountain of Chinese Coal” behind the rise in solar. That’s because a distressingly large amount of solar manufacturing is powered by burning coal, what we call “Coal-Fired Solar.”

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Parts of the solar supply chain are so carbon-intensive, each solar panel made there contains emissions from some 500 pounds of coal, roughly twice the levels of embodied supply chain carbon pollution as panels from cleaner supply chains. The Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance estimates that staying on this path of coal-fired solar means an additional 2 gigatons of carbon pollution by 2030.  Unfortunately, it is this dirty part of the global solar supply chain that is growing the fastest. This does not have to be our future. There are options in the market today in the form of ultra low-carbon solar panels from cleaner manufacturers.

Fortunately, the world is waking up to this situation. As Dalton notes, corporations and the US Government are beginning to revise their purchasing standards to preferentially buy solar panels from cleaner supply chains. Cleaner solar manufacturers are ramping up production, and the Global Electronics Council is developing a new ecolabel for Ultra Low-Carbon Solar that will make it easy for buyers to require the use of low-carbon solar panels. Broad demand for ultra low-carbon solar panels will reduce manufacturing emissions in the near term and send an important signal that all solar manufacturers need a clean growth future.

Ultra Low-Carbon Solar is not the sole answer, obviously. But it is absolutely part of it. If we want a livable world for the younger people reading this article, we must make this switch. There simply isn’t any time left to continue burning coal for any reason, not even to produce clean energy.


About the author:

Michael Parr is Executive Director of the Ultra Low-Carbon Solar Alliance, companies across the solar supply chain working to decarbonize solar manufacturing.  He has over 40 years of experience in energy, manufacturing, and public policy.

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