Solar is one of the cleanest power sources we’ve got. But it could be even greener.

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      There are only four companies that manufacture polysilicon, a critical material for solar panels and semiconductors, in the United States. This spring, one of them got a big influx of cash. In April, a Korean company called Hanwha Solutions announced it had become the largest shareholder of REC Silicon, which can produce 16,000 metric tons of polysilicon annually from a refinery in Washington State—enough to meet more than a quarter of the U.S. solar industry’s demand. Hanwha, which already operates the largest U.S. solar panel factory in Georgia, described the acquisition as part of a plan to “revitalize the U.S. solar market” by creating a made-in-America supply chain from raw materials to finished products.

      If that plan is successful, it would not only demonstrate the U.S. is, in fact, able to make solar panels with domestically sourced materials — a key policy goal of the Biden administration. It would also show that polysilicon refining, the most energy-intensive step in solar manufacturing, could be made considerably greener in the process.

      In the pantheon of climate solutions, low-carbon polysilicon may not sound particularly sexy. But it has become a hot topic in the world of solar as corporations and governments start thinking seriously about how to drive their emissions all the way to zero, including in the so-called upstream supply chains that provide materials and components for renewable energy. Already, solar photovoltaic, or PV, panels generate among the lowest carbon emissions of any energy source out there over their entire life cycle, including manufacturing. But as the industry grows, even the relatively small emissions associated with manufacturing PV panels could become significant in aggregate, potentially peaking at levels comparable to the current yearly emissions of large industrialized nations like France or Germany.

      REC Silicon is showing how the industry might do that. The company’s polysilicon production facility in Moses Lake, Washington, uses low-emissions hydropower from the local electric grid, instead of the coal that’s often used to power polysilicon refineries in China. What’s more, instead of using the energy-intensive process to purify silicon that’s standard in the industry, the Moses Lake facility has pioneered the commercialization of an alternative process that REC Silicon claims uses up to 90 percent less energy.

      Jesus: Hey, Dad? God: Yes, Son? Jesus: Western civilization followed me home. Can I keep it? God: Certainly not! And put it down this minute--you don't know where it's been! Tom Robbins in Another Roadside Attraction

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