John Vandaele bericht over de sociale, ecologische, economische en bestuurlijke aspecten van globalisering.
'Taxing solar panel imports now is a crime against humanity'
Solar panels are being installed at breakneck speed. But things should be going even faster, argues Belgian engineer Pierre Verlinden, who has worked in the solar industry for 45 years. ‘Learn from China how to make cheap solar panels. The climate puts the importance of profit into perspective.’
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No one ever said that tackling climate change would be easy, or that we would never have to make tough choices. Well, it seems that the EU is facing just such a difficult moment.
Who is Pierre Verlinden?
Pierre Verlinden studied engineering at UCL in Belgium in the 1970s, where he did a PhD on solar energy. He later moved to the US to pursue a career in the industry.
He now lives and works in Australia and China. He is chief scientist at the Yangtse Institute of Solar Technology in JiangYin, Jiangsu Province, China.
He also works part-time for Trina Solar in the same province.
Verlinden runs his own consulting company, Amrock, in Australia, and also does a lot of volunteer work.
He is an adjunct professor at UNSW in Sydney and Shenzhen Technology University in Shenzhen. He writes reviews for several scientific journals and organises leading conferences on solar energy.
He is a regular speaker on PV technology and the fight against climate change.True, the EU has already come a long way in legislating the European Green Deal, but who would have thought that, in the strategic agenda for the next five years, climate would not be a top priority while competitiveness is? This certainly gives some people the impression that Europe wants to take back some climate gas for a while, although we should stress that the path to reducing and ending CO2 emissions in 2030, 2040 and 2050 is largely set by law.
The call to protect our own industry is strong and understandable — that politicians want to take this into account should come as no surprise. The election of a certain Donald Trump showed how angry people can get when their region is deindustrialised, and good-paying jobs are shipped en masse to lower-wage countries.
Now the same risk is looming over Europe’s car industry, which could be hit hard by Chinese competition. For a long time, European manufacturers thought they were untouchable, so they stuck with the internal combustion engine for too long. In China, however, the entire production chain is geared towards electric vehicles. A flood of cheap Chinese electric vehicles threatens to take a large share of the European market.
And then what? Does anyone dare to predict how big the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) will become if a large proportion of well-paid jobs at Volkswagen, BMW or Mercedes disappear? This is one of the reasons why the European Commission has already launched an investigation into the subsidisation of Chinese car manufacturers. Import tariffs on Chinese electric cars could follow.
Nothing new under the sun
There is a sense of déjà vu. The EU has experienced this before — albeit on a smaller scale — with solar panels. At the beginning of this century, Germany was home to the world’s leading photovoltaic (PV) panel manufacturing cluster, with several research centres, including in Freiburg, and with production facilities around Leipzig and Berlin — until China took over pretty much the whole sector and drove down prices.
Pierre Verlinden, a Belgian engineer and researcher with 45 years’ experience in the solar panel sector, has seen it all. ‘The sector has been moving around the planet for the last 50 years. First it produced in the United States, then in Japan, then in Germany, and now in China.’
Verlinden, who now works for companies including China’s Trina Solar, believes the Germans underestimated China at the time. ‘They did not expect it to overtake them like this. Before China got involved, the cost price was $4 a watt. Now it is 16.5 cents and could be as low as 14 cents by the end of November.’
The fact that we now have cheap solar power is the result of international cooperation. Back then, the West did the basic research on solar power, but China gave the world cheap solar panels. ‘We should be grateful to them for that,’ says Verlinden. “China has changed the whole industry dramatically.”
When I spoke to Verlinden five years ago, his company Trina Solar, one of China’s top five PV manufacturers, was producing about 9 gigawatts of solar panels with 14,000 employees — that’s the output of nine large nuclear power plants. Next year, the same company will produce 85 gigawatts of solar panels with the same number of employees. Or 85 nuclear power stations in one year. ‘That’s roughly 155 million panels a year, 442,000 a day, and five a second, because the plant runs around the clock.’
The five solar panel giants pushed each other forward and set about supplying the world with the many millions of solar panels needed for a real solar boom. Thanks in part to the war in Ukraine and high energy prices, 239 gigawatts of solar panels were installed in 2022.
Verlinden: ‘This year it will be 440 gigawatts. By the end of 2022, 1,000 gigawatts of solar panels will have been installed worldwide. It took 70 years to build the first terawatt, but by 2025, in three years’ time, the second terawatt will be there. Today, 1 gigawatt of PV is being built every day. But to meet the climate targets, that will have to be 10 gigawatts a day.’
‘A lot of people don’t know China. It is said that the country supplies low-quality solar panels, but that is not true.’
So things are moving very fast in the world of solar panels. And manufacturers seem to be having no trouble keeping up. Verlinden does not expect any major supply problems either. ‘The main raw material is good quality sand, and we have plenty of that. Silver could be a problem, however, and should eventually be replaced by copper.’
Until now, the industry has mainly been about cost reduction, reliability, efficiency, and how much it costs to produce electricity from solar panels. Now sustainability, recyclability, embedded CO2 and water use in production are being added. Chinese companies are now focusing on these issues, says Verlinden.
‘A lot of people don’t know China. It is said that the country supplies low-quality solar panels, but that is not true. People say that China is not innovative and only copies. But it has the most efficient solar panels in the world. In China, the industry would be very polluting. There has been a lot of pollution, true, but the Chinese are cleaning it up. London used to have smog too. China is doing that now, believe me.’
Verlinden believes it would be desirable for Europe to start producing solar panels again. ‘It is not good for one country to be so dominant in a strategic sector like solar panels. The US, the EU and India should also be producers. Meanwhile, things are moving in India. Large groups like Adani and Reliance are making massive investments, and I think they can more or less compete with China.’
In the EU, Verlinden sees several small companies wanting to get back into the business. ‘I think this is a good thing, but I notice that they sometimes work with European components or tools. These are often three times more expensive than Chinese ones. That makes it difficult to be successful.’
The Belgian engineer believes that Europeans should try to fight their way back into the market, but he points out that it won’t be easy. ‘The Chinese are masters at cutting costs — at all levels.’ In the Shanghai area, for example, it is traditional not to heat above 10 degrees. The same goes for Trina Solar. We don’t see that happening in Europe any time soon.
Verlinden therefore fears that European producers will demand import duties on Chinese panels if they fail to become competitive. The argument is that Chinese companies are being subsidised.
‘That is true, but they are not subsidised more than European companies. The industry in the EU and the US is saying: subsidies are good for us, but not for the Chinese. If I don’t win, you can’t play. When it comes to clothes or cars, I don’t care so much. But I do care about the energy transition. Because then you are playing with the future of humanity — you are making solar panels more expensive. That cannot be a good thing.’
Verlinden believes trade barriers will slow down the deployment of solar energy. ‘It is a crime against humanity. People don’t like to hear it, but we have to face it: humanity is in a state of emergency. We are hurtling towards dramatic climate change that will endanger the lives of our grandchildren.’
‘People don’t like to hear it, but we have to face it: humanity is in a state of emergency.’
Verlinden believes the same is true of the ongoing research into subsidies for electric vehicles, which could lead to import tariffs. ‘Again, import tariffs will slow down the energy transition. That is not desirable.’
You would hope that the EU and China would talk to each other, and analyse the situation thoroughly. Couldn’t Verlinden play a role in that? He knows both sides.
‘What Europeans want to hear is that China is successful thanks to subsidies. That is not true. But I don’t have anything against subsidies. If Europe thinks that China is successful in this sector because of subsidies, then it should also provide subsidies — as much as possible. This is about energy transition, about the survival of humanity. The oil and gas industry still receives huge subsidies — thousands of billions a year. So subsidies for solar panels — please, do that! But trade barriers? No! Because they slow down the transition and harm the planet and all of humanity.’
Verlinden therefore advises Europe to produce solar panels and, if necessary, fully subsidise them. But he adds: ‘Learn from the Chinese how to produce them cheaply. Control your costs. This is a mass product with low margins.’
Learning from China
The idea that European companies can learn from Chinese companies is not new either. In fact, Europeans should now do what the Chinese have been doing for decades: set up one or more joint ventures with one of the five Chinese giants and learn. Verlinden: ‘That’s the way to go. It is what the Chinese have always done to learn our technology and our approach. We need to do the same now.’
But is that still possible, given the rising geopolitical tensions that tend to pit the West against China? Verlinden shakes his head: ‘We are not enemies. We are trying to save humanity together. And time is running out.’
Verlinden insists that political tensions have not made relations with his Chinese counterparts any more difficult. ‘Absolutely not. The Chinese government is taking a more controlling stance, that is true, but people like me are as welcome as ever. They appreciate me being there.’
When I ask Verlinden — who has 45 years of experience on all continents — if he might be able to help restart a European PV industry, he laughs. ‘I would actually like to retire. You see, I am a scientist. I like to train engineers. At the moment, I think I can have the most impact by working with the Chinese industry. They are the winners and the producers. They bring a reliable product to the market that is the cheapest.’
‘Forced labour in solar panels is nonsense’
Verlinden points out that there are already a lot of trade barriers in place, especially in the US. ‘In the US a lot of Chinese solar panels are stuck in ports because they are being linked to forced labour.’
The allegation is that some of the polysilicon used to make solar panels, is produced in Xinjiang province by members of the Uyghur minority who have been put in socalled “re-education sites”.
Verlinden is clear: ‘I don’t want to pronounce myself on these issues. I know what is happening in Xinjiang and I don’t like it. But the story of forced labour in the solar panel sector is nonsense. Do you know what a modern solar cell factory looks like? It is almost completely automated. The panels are made by robots. You need people to work on the machines if there is a problem. You can’t do that with prisoners.’
‘The article that made this accusation used photos of a guard at a factory gate dressed in what looks like a military uniform. But every Chinese company has guards in uniform. The criticism was that people were sleeping in dormitories. But almost all companies have dormitories.’
That is not proof that these are prisoners and that this is forced labour, says Verlinden. ‘I have visited these factories and have not seen any forced labour. By the way, the industry has quietly moved more and more factories out of Xinjiang because they could not convince the US that there was no forced labour there anyway.’
‘The US is so afraid of no longer being number one that it will do anything to hurt the Chinese economy.’
Verlinden laments the rising tensions between the US and China. ‘There is no reason for it. I am afraid it will lead to war. The US is so afraid of no longer being number one that it will do anything to hurt the Chinese economy. It’s just a repeat of what we saw with Japan in the 1970s and 1980s. But China is a much bigger market. And the more barriers the US puts up, the more China will develop everything itself. Even these sophisticated semiconductors.’
So does he not understand the criticism that any Chinese company ultimately has to listen to the Chinese state, and therefore to the Communist Party? Verlinden prefers not to make political statements, he says. He admits that politically there has been a shift towards more state control on all fronts.
‘I work with the Chinese companies because I can have a much bigger impact there. The PV industry is over there and it is growing very fast. The product is cheap enough to speed up the energy transition. And the engineers are wonderful, smart, hardworking, committed to the energy transition. But above all, they are business people. They want to make money.’
Creativity in the smoking area
Verlinden teaches engineers how to make solar panels and how to make them even more efficient. ‘In the beginning, it was easy to make progress. You always compared solar cells that differed in certain areas, and the most efficient one was easy to pick out. But today, the efficiency of solar cells is so close to the limit of what is physically possible that it is very difficult to make further progress. Then there are other factors that are difficult to control, such as temperature, humidity, dust in the air — you name it.’
‘Still I don’t think it will take a generation before China can make such semiconductors.’
‘That is what I teach them. It’s physics at a more fundamental level. These aren’t topics they learn that much about at school. They are masters of experimentation, but they are less good at theory and simulations. Bringing the two together is very important, then you can progress very quickly. Much faster than in the West, where it sometimes takes weeks to get a test done.’
It is sometimes argued that creativity and innovation are more difficult in countries with less freedom. Verlinden: ‘There is something to that. The education system in China is very top-down, students repeat what the professor says. There is less room for debate and critical analysis.’
‘There is also little theoretical framing, it is all about results. In the West you get years of theory and then some practical examples. In China it’s the opposite. There I really have to tell the students, ‘I like it when you tell me I’m wrong.’ They find that difficult.’
‘Innovation has to come from you now, I tell them — I’m too old for that now. And you need time to innovate. Go and have a coffee or a cigarette. Then you can innovate, discuss, think. It has become a joke at Trina. You can’t smoke on campus, except in certain places. But there are also secret smoking areas. When I find them there, they say they are ‘thinking’.’
The US wants to hit China by banning the export of anything to do with new technology in advanced semiconductors. Can this work? Maybe with the topdown education, China will not be able to make these sophisticated chips itself?
‘It will take a generation to change education. Teachers and CEOs are not ready. CEOs are hard to change, it is assumed they are the source of innovation. They are the leaders, and no one should contradict them. Still I don’t think it will take a generation before China can make such semiconductors.’
‘Defending the truth before it’s too late’
Verlinden welcomes the European Green Deal and the fact that more and more countries are adopting industrial policies because the market alone will not solve the climate problem. “I don’t know if that view has really changed in the US yet. President Joe Biden is taking steps in that direction, but many still believe that the market will decide what is right and what is wrong. Unfortunately, this is not true. Profit does not necessarily drive decisions towards the common good of humanity.’
But Verlinden does not expect all the solutions to come from government. After all, governments also tend to focus on growth and jobs, and on protecting existing businesses, fossil or otherwise. Everyone has to take responsibility, he says. Companies and individuals alike.
‘Sometimes you have to do something that is not very profitable. A lot of people reduce the energy transition to the question ‘What is in it for me?’ But is that the right question to ask when the survival of humanity is at stake? Take the CEO of Shell, who says that ‘my responsibility is to increase the income of my shareholders.’ Does the survival of humanity not come into play?’
‘Truth has never been more fragile, and neither has the planet. It is up to scientists to defend both of these essential things before it is too late.’
Even citizens are often guided by the payback time when installing solar panels, Verlinden observes. ‘’I am too old and will never see the profit,’ they say. Or ‘I’m not going to replace my car with an electric car because I don’t see the benefit’.’
But what are the real costs of doing nothing? ‘The world is heading for plus four degrees by 2100. By then we will have massive desertification, acidification of the oceans, forest fires everywhere. And mass migration, as large parts of the planet become uninhabitable. People have put figures on the cost of inaction. They are immense. Insurance companies are already starting to exclude natural disasters or certain regions from their policies.’
Nevertheless, Verlinden remains optimistic. He sees solar energy as a fast-growing sector. Although he is aware that much more is needed. ‘The polarisation in society, fuelled in part by social media, frightens me. As a scientist and engineer, my message is that it is our responsibility to tell you the truth. ‘That is your truth, mine is different,’people often react. That’s frightening for me.’
‘I agree with climate scientist Michael Mann. Truth has never been more fragile, and neither has the planet. It is up to scientists to defend both of these essential things before it is too late.’