Tech Insights

US Solar Panel Manufacturing Could Cut Emissions

April 13, 2023 by Claire Turvill

Research from Cornell suggests moving solar panel manufacturing back to the U.S. could help further cut carbon emissions. Reshoring and expanding renewable energy can help reach 2050 carbon-neutral goals faster.

Significant government support for research and development helped the United States play a crucial role in establishing the modern solar industry. During the 1970s, approximately 90% of solar manufacturing worldwide occurred in the U.S., surpassing all other countries. However, currently, the majority of solar manufacturing has shifted to Asia.

Solar panels. Image used courtesy of Pixabay


Despite the increasing demand for solar energy, solar manufacturing in the U.S. plummeted by 80% from 2010 to 2019. This decline was largely due to the decreasing cost of solar modules. The Chinese government’s extensive support for the industry, coupled with lower labor and production expenses for Chinese manufacturers, resulted in their prices undercutting those of American manufacturers. In the 2000s, China made substantial long-term commitments to the solar industry. Support from the U.S. government was inconsistent, resulting in more barriers for American manufacturers looking to raise capital.

Now, a new study out of Cornell Engineering suggests that relocating the production of solar panels back to the U.S. could expedite decarbonization efforts more effectively than maintaining international production.


Supply Chain Emissions

International shipping is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and supply chain emissions are a significant part of this. The emissions from the production and transportation of goods are indirect (Scope 3) emissions that occur outside a company’s own operations. These emissions are often the largest source of emissions for many companies, especially those in the manufacturing and retail sectors. 

In international shipping, supply chain emissions occur throughout the entire product lifecycle, from raw materials extraction to manufacturing, packaging, transportation, and final disposal. The carbon footprint of a product is influenced by the distance it travels, the mode of transport used, and the energy intensity of the production process.

Sourcing solar panels from domestic manufacturers can help U.S. buyers lessen the environmental impact of their purchase. Unfortunately, the materials used to make solar panels, sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid, are often associated with water and air pollution. Producing solar panels is also connected to habitat loss, carbon emissions, and unsustainable mining practices.

The solar market is expected to have substantial growth by 2050. As impactful as it will be on global energy systems, it is important to understand what environmental impacts are associated with all parts of the product life cycle.

The solar market will grow substantially by 2050. Image used courtesy of Pixabay


Meeting Decarbonization Goals

According to research from Cornell Engineering–published in Nature Communications, co-authored by Ph.D. student Haoyue Liang and professor Fengqi You–domestic solar panel production in the U.S. can accelerate decarbonization and reduce climate change faster.

The authors cite the 2021 supply chain disruptions, various geopolitical tensions, and the carbon footprint associated with international shipping as the main reasons to consider reshoring solar panel manufacturing. Continuing international manufacturing faces the risk of increasing political and economic instability, trade barriers, transportation costs, and quality control issues that could affect supply chain emissions levels.

Based on projections, nearly 50% of U.S. energy will be supplied by solar in 2050. This increase in renewable energy on the power grid, paired with successful reshoring by 2035, is expected to lower manufacturing emissions.

The paper argues that manufacturing crystalline silicon photovoltaic panels in the U.S. would solve logistical challenges and reduce GHG emissions and energy use, resulting in a reduction of 30% in GHG emissions and 13% in energy consumption by 2035. By 2050, solar panels made and used in the U.S. have the potential to be more efficient, with a 33% reduction in the life cycle carbon footprint and 17% less energy use than solar panels sourced globally, compared to 2020 numbers.


Support for Photovoltaics

In 2022, the White House announced the federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which allocated $369 billion in business incentives and tax credits toward building a clean energy economy. This includes the production of over 950 million solar panels in addition to wind turbines and grid-scale battery plants. 

Renewable energy sources contributed 22% of the 4.24 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity generated domestically in the U.S. In 2022, 3.4% was generated from solar power. The U.S. aims to increase solar capacity from 74 gigawatts in 2022 to an estimated 1,600 gigawatts by 2050, with the goal of half the country’s electricity coming from solar energy by that time.

The new research suggests reasonable scenarios that allow the U.S. to create a competitive domestic supply chain of solar panel production in states like Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

The IRA provides an opportunity for the U.S. to invest in developing innovative and sustainable energy solutions. 

You emphasizes the significant opportunity for GHG emissions savings in reshoring manufacturing and production as the solar panel industry meets its expected growth over the next couple of decades.