Making Solar Big Enough to Matter
Solar energy has become big business. Over the past decade it has plummeted in cost, surged in volume, and, as booming industries do, benefited some investors and burned others. The International Energy Agency has predicted photovoltaic solar could provide up to 16 percent of the world’s electricity by midcentury — an enormous increase from the roughly 1 percent that solar generates today. But for solar to realize its potential, governments will have to grow up too. They’ll need to overhaul their solar policies to make them ruthlessly economically efficient.
太阳能已经成了大生意。过去10年里，太阳能成本下降，产量提升。和其他欣欣向荣的行业一样，太阳能让一些投资者获利，也让有些人亏损。国际能源署(International Energy Agency)预计，到本世纪中叶，光伏太阳能在全球发电量中的比例将在目前大约1%的基础上大幅增加，最高可达16%。但要让太阳能发挥潜力，政府也必须成长起来。它们须改革太阳能政策，让它们具备极高的经济效率。
The widespread view that solar power is a hopelessly subsidized business is quickly growing outdated. In some particularly sunny spots, such as certain parts of the Middle East, solar power now is beating fossil-fueled electricity on price without subsidies.
Even where — as in the United States — solar needs subsidies, it’s getting cheaper. American utilities now are signing 20-year agreements to buy solar power at, and in some cases below, 5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Those prices, which reflect tax breaks, are in some instances low enough to compete with electricity from power plants that burn plentiful American natural gas. Solar will be all the more competitive if gas prices rise — something many predict — and as more governments impose prices on carbon dioxide emissions.
The market is concluding that solar makes sense. In part that’s because of technological advances that have made solar cells more efficient in converting sunlight into power. In part it’s the result of manufacturing scale, which has slashed the cost of solar-panel production. And, in places that tax greenhouse-gas emissions, it’s in part because solar produces carbon-free power.
But much more needs to be done. Ratcheting up solar to produce approximately 1 percent of global electricity has required a lot of technology and investment. Making solar big enough to matter environmentally would be an even more colossal undertaking. It would require plastering the ground and roofs with billions of solar panels. It would require significantly increasing energy storage, because solar panels crank out electricity only when the sun shines, which is why, today, solar often needs to be backed up by fossil fuels. And it would require adding more transmission lines, because often the places where the sun shines best aren’t where most people live.
The scale of this challenge makes economic efficiency crucial, as we argue in a report, “The New Solar System,” released on Tuesday. The policies that have goosed solar have been often unsustainable and sometimes contradictory. One glaring example: With one hand, the United States is trying to make solar cheaper, through tax breaks, and with the other hand it’s making solar more expensive, through tariffs it has imposed on solar products imported from China, the world’s largest maker and installer of solar panels.
正如我们在周二发布的报告《新太阳能系统》(The New Solar System)中所说的，这项挑战的规模意味着经济效率变得至关重要。促进太阳能发展的政策往往不可持续，有时甚至相互矛盾。一个明显的例子是：美国一方面试图通过税收减免让太阳能变得更便宜，另一方面却又对从中国进口的太阳能产品征收关税，导致太阳能变得更贵。中国生产和安装的太阳能组件数量居全球之首。
The tariffs are prompting Chinese solar manufacturers to set up factories not in the United States, but in low-cost countries that aren’t subject to the levies. And the Chinese government has responded with its own tariffs against American-made solar goods. Those tariffs have eroded the United States share in the one part of solar manufacturing — polysilicon, the raw material for solar cells — in which America once had a significant role.
That solar is now involved in a trade war is a sign of how far it has come. The United States developed the first solar cells in the 1950s and put them into space in the 1960s. Japan and Germany began putting big numbers of solar panels on rooftops in the 1990s. But solar power didn’t really advance into a real industry until a decade ago, when China stepped in.
In the mid-2000s, stimulated by hefty solar subsidies in Europe, a handful of entrepreneurs in China started producing inexpensive solar panels, much as had been done in China before with T-shirts and televisions. These entrepreneurs bought equipment from manufacturers in Europe and the United States, built big factories with government subsidies, and got down to business cranking out millions of solar panels for export.
Today, China utterly dominates global solar-panel manufacturing. Last year, according to the consulting firm IHS Markit, China accounted for 70 percent of global capacity for manufacturing crystalline-silicon solar panels, the most common type. The United States share was 1 percent.
But now, China’s solar industry is changing in little-noticed ways that create both an imperative and an opportunity for the United States to up its game. The Chinese industry is innovating technologically — indeed, it’s starting to score world-record solar-cell efficiencies — contrary to a long-held myth that all China can do is manufacture others’ inventions cheaply. It’s expanding its manufacturing footprint across the globe. And it’s scrambling to import more efficient ways of financing solar power that have been pioneered in the West. The United States needs to take these shifts into account in defining an American solar strategy that minimizes the cost of solar power to the world while maximizing the long-term benefit to the American economy.
A more-enlightened United States policy approach to solar would seek above all to continue slashing solar power’s costs — not to prop up types of American solar manufacturing that can’t compete globally. It would leverage, not aim to bury, China’s manufacturing superiority, with closer cooperation on solar research and development. And it would focus American solar subsidies more on research and development and deployment than on manufacturing. As solar manufacturing continues to automate, reducing China’s cheap-labor advantage, it is likely to make more sense in the United States, at least for certain sorts of solar products.
The United States needs to play to its comparative advantages in the solar sector. That requires a sober assessment of what China does well.
Mr. Trump argued in his 2015 book, “Crippled America” (since retitled “Great Again”), that solar panels didn’t “make economic sense.” But he also wrote that, when solar energy “proves to be affordable and reliable in providing a substantial percent of our energy needs, then maybe it’ll be worth discussing.”
特朗普曾在其2015年的著作《跛脚的美国》（Crippled America，后改名为《恢复伟大荣光》[Great Again]）中表示，太阳能组件“在经济上不划算”。但他也写道，当太阳能“证明能经济、可靠地满足我们比例可观的能源需求时，也许值得讨论”。
That time has arrived. A smarter solar policy — one with a more-nuanced view of China — is something the new president ought to like.
Solar isn’t just for the granola crowd anymore. It’s a global industry, and it’s poised to make a real environmental difference. Whether it delivers on that promise will depend on policy makers prodding it to become more economically efficient. That will require a shift both from those who have loved solar and from those who have laughed it off.