Jan 5, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Exclusive: DOE official warns of solar supply chain risks

Photo illustration of Becca Jones-Albertus with solar panels and abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios. Photo: courtesy of DOE

Relying on Asia for imports could pose a risk to U.S. solar growth, a top Department of Energy official told Axios in an interview.

Why it matters: The department is shedding light on where it believes there is risk in the solar supply chain (China) — and where there isn't — ahead of aggressive oversight from House Republicans.

What they’re saying: “There are certainly supply chain risks that come from having manufacturing concentrated in China and Southeast Asia,” DOE Solar Energy Technologies Office director Becca Jones-Albertus told Axios.

  • “We certainly want a more diverse geographic footprint and we would really like to have more of that here at home.”

The big picture: Chinese parts are getting riskier for U.S. solar firms.

  • The Commerce Department recently found that some of the largest solar module suppliers — all operating in China — are illegally dodging U.S. anti-dumping tariffs by routing shipments through other Asian countries.
  • GOP lawmakers also urged Customs and Border Protection last month not to allow solar-related imports from companies in China over human rights concerns.

Yes, but: Jones-Albertus said solar has one big advantage over other low-carbon products: There's no shortage of the minerals it needs.

  • Raw materials for making solar technology — like quartz — are found in abundance domestically, and around the world, so solar may not face the kinds of resource shortage problems befuddling batteries.
  • She said the problems arrive in “those intermediate supply chain steps” where quartz is made into polysilicon for panels — another space China dominates today.
  • "Supply of that raw material of quartz is not going to limit our ability to deploy solar technology," Jones-Albertus said, "but as that technology gets refined and you come into these intermediate supply chain steps, that’s where we don’t currently have U.S. manufacturing capacity."

The big picture: Jones-Albertus pitched the Inflation Reduction Act — which was packed with solar manufacturing incentives — as a solution to weaning off Asia.

  • The Solar Energy Industries Association predicts the U.S. will have significant ingot, wafer and cell manufacturing in three-to-five years, partially because of IRA incentives.
  • Large solar part plants have been announced across the country since the IRA passed. And Jones-Albertus expects more to come.
  • “I think this is a really exciting time because the Inflation Reduction Act actually provides the incentives needed to grow that whole supply chain here,” she said.
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