In summary

As California decarbonizes its grid and transportation, it can also decarbonize the industrial supply chain for solar energy.

By Mark Bassett

Mark Bassett is chairman and CEO of Hemlock Semiconductor Operations, ceo@hscpoly.com.

Mark Widmar, Special to CalMatters

Mark Widmar is CEO of First Solar, media@firstsolar.com. Both companies are founding members of the Ultra Low-Carbon Solar Alliance

California is experiencing climate change today, like never before. Wildfires are more frequent and intense, droughts are longer and deeper, and temperatures are rising. But California is responding.

Long a climate leader, California has expanded its ambitions. Gov. Gavin Newsom has accelerated the state’s goal of decarbonizing its economy and established a new objective of requiring sales of all new passenger vehicles to be zero-emission by 2035. More than 30 California counties and municipalities have set their own bold renewable energy goals, and California has established a rooftop solar standard for new homes.

At the same time, California has signaled its objective of helping to drive broader decarbonization of industrial supply chains beyond its borders with the passage of the Buy Clean California Act. Under this policy, state agencies will take embodied supply chain carbon emissions into account when they buy steel, glass and mineral wool insulation for buildings. Leading private sector companies are driving greater sustainability in their supply chains as well.

Now, California has yet another opportunity to take the lead. As the state decarbonizes its grid, transportation and housing, it can also decarbonize an additional industrial supply chain – that of solar energy itself.

To be clear, all solar is good, far better than fossil energy sources, but some solar is better.

It turns out that, like other supply chains, there are carbon emissions in the solar supply chain, and they differ significantly across manufacturers. How and where solar modules and their components are manufactured can significantly impact a solar panel’s environmental profile. Because of this, some solar panels on the market have less than half the life cycle emissions, or embodied carbon, as others.

Where do these differences in embodied carbon come from? Some companies in the solar industry have resource-efficient manufacturing processes or power their manufacturing plants with energy from clean grids with large amounts of renewables, or both. In contrast, others utilize coal-fired power with less regard for energy efficiency. 

The recognition of differences in embodied carbon is growing. France and South Korea already have embodied carbon standards in their public procurement programs for solar.

California should be next. The state has proven time and again that strong environmental policy and business growth are reinforcing – not competing – factors. Policymakers understand that with the right policy signals, business innovation can help address major environmental challenges, especially carbon pollution.

If the public and private sector solar buyers in California were to preferentially buy what we call “ultra low-carbon solar panels,” it would catalyze multiple benefits. It would avoid significant carbon emissions from sources such as coal-fired electricity that would otherwise occur in the solar supply chain in the near term.

That is pretty good, but it gets even better. Such a step would send a powerful signal to the global solar industry, which is about to undergo a dramatic growth cycle. It would signal to solar companies that the new plants they build to meet surging demand better be clean, ultra low-carbon solar plants if they want to compete globally. Talk about a win-win.

Today, companies that already help reduce greenhouse gas emissions are thriving. Several Fortune 100 corporations based in California have already made public commitments to power their operations with 100% renewable energy. California companies are ready to tackle reducing supply chain emissions in industries like solar. Doing so would make California less vulnerable to future supply chain shocks – and be able to put more Californians back to work.

There are few better places to start than decarbonizing the solar supply chain – making a good thing even better and leveraging California’s leadership to affect change in an industry ready to respond. California has a rich history of being on the cutting edge of policy innovation that helps shape national policy. Making ultra low-carbon solar the standard for the Golden State is a logical next step in that leadership.

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