Glass Shortage Stalls China’s Renewable Energy Goals

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

There is a new obstacle in the push for clean energy: there’s just not enough glass

The world’s largest solar power company, Longi Green Energy Technology Co., says that a glass shortage is stymieing China’s renewable energy goals. The price of the glass that coats photovoltaic panels has increased by 71% since July, and glass manufacturers aren’t able to keep up with the demand from solar power companies. 

The shortage comes during a period of major change in the solar power industry; companies are switching to bifacial panels, which require more glass to make but are more effective at generating solar power. 

Why This Matters: China is the world’s top emitterr of greenhouse gasses. In October, the country pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060, a promise some consider unlikely. Zhang Xiliang, a climate modeler at Tsinghua University in Beijing, says that to achieve this goal, China’s solar production would have to increase 16-fold and wind power to increase 9-fold. 

As a signatory of the Paris Climate Agreement, China is expected to submit new emissions reduction targets by the end of the year, but with its solar market out of balance, those targets may lack the ambition China previously promised. 

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: China is now caught in a double bind. To meet its ambitious climate goals, it must invest in the most effective sources of renewable energy. However, the speed at which it must develop this infrastructure is disrupting supply and demand

Bifacial solar panels are expected to make up half of the market by 2022. Because of the widespread demand, solar glass manufacturers have seen their stock prices skyrocket this year; Flat Glass Group Co. nearly quadrupled its market value in Hong Kong. 

  • For the companies that manufacture solar panels themselves, solar glass now accounts for 20% of the cost of producing panels, doubled from 10% previously. 
  • The spike in costs may prevent manufacturers from meeting year-end goals that would allow them to secure government subsidies

In 2018, the Chinese government put a stop to the development of new glass factories, citing pollution and over-capacity issues. This past Tuesday, five major solar companies, including Longi, met with government officials to appeal for the removal of those restrictions for solar glass. Even if these restrictions are lifted, solar glass factories take time to build. Because of this delay, the solar industry could be 20-30% short of the glass it needs until 2022.

Looking Forward: Solar executives fear that this imbalance in supply and demand may scare solar power producers away from the technology needed to reach China’s goals. Charles Jiang, general manager of supply chain management at Longi, explains,

if solar power generators see solar projects as uneconomical, they will delay investing in new projects and that will drag down solar demand. Solar power plant profits will drop below acceptable levels without government subsidies if glass makers go on to push up the costs.”

Companies also worry that the still uncertain results of the U.S. presidential election could influence the market value of the solar industry. The Chinese solar industry would benefit from a higher demand for green energy in the U.S., which Democratic candidate Joe Biden has emphasized the need for in his platform. The impact of American politics on the Chinese solar industry was in full swing on Wednesday when solar glass stocks plummeted in the absence of a “blue wave” in the U.S. Those stocks rose on Thursday as a Biden presidency and a greener agenda became more likely. 

 

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