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China is spending billions to expand solar manufacturing capacity -- can the U.S. catch up?

Even as the price of fossil fuels bounces around historic highs, the price for renewable energy will likely keep falling as China continues to build out manufacturing capacity to reduce the cost of solar energy.

In fact, one Chinese solar panel manufacturer, Jinko Solar, just announced the construction of an over $1.5 billion new factory in the Qinghai region of the country that will produce 30 gigawatts worth of the rods used to make the mono crystalline silicon material used in high efficiency solar panels.

That's more raw material for solar energy-producing panels than the entire United States plans to build in 2022 (the U.S. plans to add 21GW of solar -- enough energy for about 16 million American homes). It's also over triple the amount of solar manufacturing

But if the U.S. is to shore up its domestic capabilities for national security and to ensure new, high-quality, employment opportunities for workers whose jobs could be threatened by the energy transition, the country needs to step up.

China dominates the solar manufacturing market. Chinese manufacturers accounted for roughly 52% of the global market for solar panels as of 2017, according to data on Statista.

One of the reasons why solar remains more expensive than wind in the U.S. is the reliance on foreign suppliers -- especially since those suppliers are subject to tariffs lingering from the U.S. trade war with China, which began during the administration of President Donald Trump and has continued under the Biden presidency.

"We almost have no capacity for [solar] module …manufacturing" in the U.S., Raj Prabhu, the chief executive of the industry tracker Mercom, told the publication UtilityDive. "We are completely dependent on Asia for all the imports, so it’s a pretty sensitive market to all the duties and tariffs."

There are early attempts in the U.S. to build out new solar production as part of the broader push from the Biden Administration to boost American manufacturing. The Department of Energy's Solar Energy Technologies Office has plans to boost photovoltaic manufacturing capacity by 1 gigawatt per year and to ensure that 40 percent of the value from solar installations are going to domestic service and hardware providers.

Over the last decade, the U.S. has seen its percent of the solar market decline by a whopping 80 percent. And the country has effectively given up on catching China in production of traditional polycrystalline silicon or the new mono crystalline solar panels that Chinese companies are spending more money on to manufacture.

If the U.S. is to match China's production capacity, it'll have to come from new kinds of solar technologies, according to a report from the policy think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The biggest push from the U.S. has been into new technologies that can cut the cost of solar by 60 percent over the next ten years -- from $46.5 per megawatt-hour to $20 per megawatt-hour, according to the CSIS report.

For the U.S. to make any attempt at hitting these goals, it's going to need to rely on new technologies. These are things like concentrating solar technologies and next-generation tech based on new techniques to make materials called perovskite crystals that are used in what's called tandem solar

These new technologies can't come fast enough. The share of of U.S. solar panels in the global market has fallen from 13 percent in 2004 to less than 1 percent in 2021, according to the report from CSIS.

The numbers for component manufacturing are just as bad. The US produces five percent of poly silicon supply, nearly no silicon wafers, one percent of solar cells and six percent of solar modules.

For now, the U.S. solar industry's biggest hopes lie in the development of perovskite-based tandem solar and thin film technologies.

Last June, Canary Media put together a phenomenal list of companies that are working on new perovskite solar technologies.

BlueDot Photonics uses ​“continuous flash sublimation production” techniques to improve the efficiency of perovskite photovoltaics and aims to drop into existing manufacturing configurations. The startup has raised $1 million in a round led by VoLo Earth Ventures, along with Clean Energy Venture Group.

Microquanta Semiconductor, a Chinese firm, is building panels from glass-packaged perovskites and has recently pulled in $55 million in funding.

Oxford PV has raised more than $140 million to develop perovskite-on-silicon tandem solar cells and modules. Meyer Burger has partnered with the startup to develop equipment and has also taken an equity stake in the firm.

Saule Technologies is developing an inkjet printing technique for manufacturing perovskite solar cells packaged in bendable plastic.

Swift Solar stacks perovskite solar cells to make tandem cells. The Department of Energy–funded startup can deposit these layers on flexible substrates and foils.

Tandem PV aims to monolithically print thin-film perovskites on a glass panel and mechanically stack them on top of silicon cells.

These startups represent some of the best opportunities for innovation to enable the U.S. to return to a position where it could have a meaningful stake in the photovoltaic revolution that's still in its early days.

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