How America can reclaim its solar manufacturing prowess

Guest Author

Clean energy can free us from our dependence on bad actors.

Given current events, we need to work on the energy transition with renewed urgency. The United States has an opportunity to accelerate this crucial transition.

Legislation pending in Congress will ensure we lead the solar industries of the future and unlock a tremendous amount of domestic manufacturing potential.

Included among the more than $300 billion in clean-energy tax credits Congress is considering is the Solar Energy Manufacturing Act (SEMA) sponsored by Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.). It would lower the cost of U.S. manufacturing through refundable tax credits.

The free market is a powerful concept. It’s popular for good reason, having fueled the prosperity of the last century. In the face of Chinese state-sponsored capitalism, however, this 19th century idea falls short.

The Chinese government heavily subsidizes investments in new factories, carefully controls its currency and depresses labor costs. If we were to simply let free market forces operate, then we would keep watching industry after industry relocate to China.

It’s a dependency we cannot afford, and there is bipartisan agreement (most recently in the form of trade measures) that we need a different approach to build and sustain our domestic industries, including solar.

Passing SEMA would make U.S. solar manufacturing highly competitive because it would lower the cost of production, which is key to attracting companies to invest in modern American factories.

I have worked in solar for the last 12 years, and I personally know most of the CEOs. Every fellow executive I speak with plans to invest in new factories if SEMA passes.

The bill would stimulate massive private investment in renewable energy manufacturing by enabling U.S. factories to operate at the scale and cost structure to compete with anyone in the world.

That surge in U.S. production would generate profitable exports to the benefit of our trade balance. The boom in domestic production would in turn drive down the price of solar panels even more and accelerate the adoption of clean energy.

Most importantly, durable policy like SEMA would give the U.S. the opportunity to lead the next era of innovation.

For companies like CubicPV, this is particularly important. Our core technologies are essential to a new kind of solar module called tandem, which extracts even more energy from the sun than traditional solar panels. SEMA would accelerate their introduction in the U.S. market and make it possible to harness the ingenuity that creates long-term global leadership.

Every 15 years, solar leadership has transitioned from one country to another. Solar began at the New Jersey-based Bell Labs in 1953. Fueled by the space race and the need to power satellites, the U.S. invented solar panels and created the technology to harvest electricity from the sun.

After the oil shocks of the 1970s, leadership moved to Japan and the first consumer products—developed by Sanyo, Sharp and Kyocera—became examples of innovation.

In the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident, leadership transitioned to Germany and the country’s feed-in tariff created a strong domestic solar industry.

In 2010, we entered the current phase, dominated by China. The country’s government investment of approximately $200 billion, as well as its ability to replicate and massively scale western innovation, has created a near monopoly on silicon solar modules and their components. SEMA is the law we need to shift solar leadership back to the United States once more.

SEMA will re-shore solar leadership because it will spur investment and create significant manufacturing scale. These activities are vital to fueling the innovation that underpins long-term industry success.

It is this combination of strong policy, scale and breakthrough technology that will ensure the U.S. reclaims its seat at the solar manufacturing table and keeps it for decades to come.

Editor’s note: CubicPV’s investors include Breakthrough Energy Ventures that is affiliated with the broader Breakthrough Energy network, which supports Cipher.