The POWER Interview: Solving Issues in the Solar Sector

The U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) for the past few years has talked about the importance of “building a strong solar manufacturing sector and supply chain in America” to support the nation’s economy, and to help “keep pace with rising domestic and global demand for affordable solar energy.”

Recent events, including further disruption of global supply chains due to continuing pandemic-related impacts, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its effect on global energy markets, have led many in the solar sector to emphasize the importance of U.S.-based manufacturing to support the continued growth of solar power. Southern Co. last month said as much as 1 GW of its planned solar energy projects could be delayed by a year, citing supply chain issues and the threat of new U.S. tariffs on imports of solar panels from Southeast Asia.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, in a recent congressional budget hearing, told lawmakers “I share your deep concern about this,” as she responded to a about how a slowdown in solar energy growth could threaten U.S. climate goals.

Gregg Patterson

NextEra recently said it expected as much as 2.8 GW of its solar and energy storage projects would be moved from this year to 2023, blaming the U.S. Commerce Department’s trade probe into alleged tariff dodging by Chinese panel makers. The solar industry has called for a swift resolution to the investigation, which could result in tariffs on solar panels from four Southeast Asian nations that account for about 80% of imports into the United States. The probe—industry insiders fear it could drag on for months—has created uncertainty in the solar power sector because any tariffs could be implemented retroactively.

Gregg Patterson, CEO of Origami Solar, a company working to lessen the solar industry’s reliance on aluminum, with a patent pending design for steel module frames, spoke with POWER about the importance of U.S.-based solar equipment manufacturing, and the steps his group is taking to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the manufacturing process.

POWER: How important is domestic manufacturing of solar power equipment (solar modules and balance of systems, or BOS) to the growth of the U.S. solar energy sector?

Patterson: The last few years of pandemic and now several months of the Ukraine invasion have clearly shown the risks of dependency on distant strategic supply chains and on countries with orthogonal objectives to Western-style democracies. The lessons from these experiences are all pointing towards domestic or at least regional competencies and supply chains as essential to predictable and efficient market growth. The historical structural labor advantages in Asia have largely been lost due to automation and rapid growth in labor rates in these countries. This is now more about industrial policy and the need to focus on strategic industries like energy to achieve independence.

The U.S. solar industry has benefitted greatly from subsidized PV purchases, allowing project costs to drop consistently and sharply over the past 20 years. However, this approach has also come at a high cost because PV subsidies are overwhelmingly paid (directly or through tax breaks) on equipment. And, solar equipment is manufactured predominantly in China, with some estimates of 70% to 80%. This means that all or practically all of our equipment subsidy dollars have gone directly to China, and not cycled through the US economy. U.S. subsidies have been and continue to be instrumental in building the solar industry, creating 230,000 jobs focused on development and installation. Our subsidies can do much more for our domestic economy if we also incentivized manufacturing, creating high-paying jobs producing PV equipment, not just installing it.

By encouraging growth of U.S. solar manufacturing, we also help solve the enormous problems associated with logistics and trade wars, which are delaying or even canceling projects. There are many U.S. projects that have significant penalties or other cost increases related to lack of equipment. These problems are front and center when considering where investment dollars go, so project delays will certainly cause investors to consider alternatives to solar projects.

POWER: What are the biggest supply chain issues facing the U.S. solar power industry? How many of these issues are due to the pandemic, and what are the issues that are not pandemic-related?

Patterson: There are three core issues underlying current U.S. solar power supply chain challenges. All have become very visible as a result of the pandemic and current geopolitics (i.e. Ukraine).

The first is the inherent risk in concentrating supply coming out of a remote region/country. Supply chain logistics that literally stretch halfway around the world are not resistant to interruptions or material supply/demand imbalances of any sort. The ripple effect shows all the bottlenecks that can occur.

The second and related issue is where such a concentration of supply is potentially impacted by geopolitical conflicts, that can create even greater uncertainty—especially in industries of strategic societal impact.

The third issue is the limits of traditional trade policy (e.g. tariffs) to achieve constructive outcomes. The previous administration initiated, and the current administration has supported, multiple trade barriers, resulting in a confusing, often-changing tariff landscape. Multiple AD/ACV actions also resulted in PV shipments being held or turned away at our borders. This has led to great uncertainty among suppliers about making and shipping products to the U.S. for fear of incurring huge losses. The result is project delays and/or projects becoming non-viable over time as the increased costs of tariffs and risk are passed on to developers and contractors.

POWER: What are important new technologies being introduced for solar power?

Patterson: Technology improvements are found in equipment, systems, and business. They include:

  • Higher-voltage modules and the accompanying regulations have dramatically lowered wiring and inverter costs.
  • Cell technologies including HJT, Perovskite, shingling, etc. have resulted in solar panels that can be installed by two workers to generate up to 700 watts. This is wholly remarkable considering that just a few years ago the highest-power panels were 180 watts.
  • Plug-and-play electrical equipment made for the solar industry has dramatically lowered costs for hardware and especially for installation.
  • New technologies that reduce cost and GHG content will provide a major boost to continuing growth of the industry, while meeting standards for lower environmental impact.
  • Along with efficiency increases, modules are getting much larger, with new options now up to 2.4m tall and producing 700W, versus the typical ~400W panels that were the norm a few years ago.
  • SolarApp is a great example of how a business technology (automating permitting and inspection) is already having a huge impact, lowering costs by making the business side of solar much more efficient.

POWER: Is the solar industry focused more on innovation for utility-scale installations, or on innovation for the residential and/or commercial and industrial sector?

Patterson: On a megawatt basis, about 70% of the solar industry is utility-scale, so I would venture more innovation is focused there. However, like other industries (such as auto racing) “lessons learned on the track” are readily and quickly applied to commercial and industrial (C&I) and residential solar. High-wattage panels are now, and will continue being used for C&I and residential. There are also companies that focus solely on one segment, such as GAF with residential, who are putting substantial resources into innovating their space. This has led to a number of new solutions for racking, installation, service, etc. for systems on rooftops, carports and other non-utility-scale projects. And, some technologies originally developed for residential or C&I are making their way into utility-scale projects. Module-level power electronics were once strictly employed on residential and C&I, and are now finding a foothold in utility-scale. 

POWER: Many analysts have said any solar installation should be designed so that it can be paired with energy storage.

Patterson: For many solar projects, the electrical grid is a virtual energy storage device. Through net metering, a system either stores excess power in the grid, or takes needed power from the grid. In effect, the grid is a huge battery, with zero power loss. This means that where the grid is strong and stable, energy storage via the grid is the superior economic choice. However, trends such as micro/community grids and electrification of transportation/heating, as well as the considerable impacts of climate change, are creating dynamics that are stressing the grid more and more. Thus energy storage is an increasingly valuable solution to pair with solar for dealing with extreme supply and demand dynamics seen across the world.

POWER: What are the advantages of using steel in module frames, versus the traditional use of aluminum?

Patterson: The lone area of solar PV that has not innovated is the PV module frame. Extruded aluminum has been used for PV frames since PV modules became available 40+ years ago. While the profiles have evolved somewhat, the form and function of the aluminum frame are unchanged. Meanwhile, every other solar PV component has undergone dramatic innovation.

Because corrosion is a major concern, and because anodized aluminum is very resistant to corrosion, substitute technology has not been developed. Several years ago, however, a new coating for steel became mainstream. The zinc-aluminum-magnesium coatings used by a number of major steel manufacturers has been demonstrated to last 30-100 years, allowing thin metals to be employed in solar without concern for corrosion damage.

Aluminum is expensive, running at around triple the price of steel for decades. This is due to the very high amount of energy needed to make purified aluminum. Steel, on the other hand, can be formed to make PV solar module frames that perform equal to or better than aluminum, allowing the natively lower cost of steel to reduce the cost of the frame, and therefore the module. China has typically produced the cheapest aluminum in the world and for that reason has held a virtual monopoly on solar frames over the past decade.

Simply put, using steel—which is readily available domestically—instead of aluminum reduces the GHG content of the frame by 87%, according to a recent study from Boundless Impact Research and Analytics. On a global basis, the benefits would be enormous. Every 10% of the global market that switches from aluminum to steel will result in avoiding 30,000 megatonnes (mt) of GHG. I am not aware of any similarly impactful technology switch.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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