Where Are Solar Panels Made? Does It Matter?

Many claim that the first solar panel was manufactured in Murray Hill, New Jersey. In 1954, three Bell Telephone Company scientists conducted experiments on silicon strips that resulted in the development of the solar cell. They demonstrated the invention by powering a small toy Ferris wheel and a radio transmitter, and promptly filed a patent for a silicon solar cell with a 6 percent efficiency.

Solar manufacturing refers to the fabrication and assembly of materials across the solar supply chain. This includes not only solar photovoltaic panels, but also batteries, inverters and racking equipment. Solar supply chain is truly a global one, making tracing the impact of a solar company so complex.

The United States increased its solar panel production over the next century, powering the first solar building and even fueling NASA spacecraft with solar energy. The country was a pioneer in solar technology.

solar panel engineers

By 2022, however, only one company considered a top solar panel manufacturer has its headquarters in the United States. What, then, has changed? Today, where are solar panels manufactured? Is it really necessary to know where solar panels are manufactured?

Let us investigate.


Manufacturing of Solar Panels

Solar manufacturing is the process of fabricating and assembling components used in the solar supply chain. This includes not only solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, but also batteries, inverters, and mounting equipment, each of which has a distinct chemical and physical composition.

In comparison to the origins of the major components of solar panels, the assembly process is relatively straightforward. As a result, the following question arises: What are solar panels made of?

Almost all solar photovoltaic panels are composed primarily of crystalline silicon wafers. Silicon is used to manufacture semiconductors for approximately 95% of all solar panels currently on the market. Additionally, solar panels require aluminium frames, a backsheet, and a junction box, and are typically covered in an anti-reflective layer of glass.

These components must be purchased separately and are made entirely of rare raw materials such as quartz and copper.



To begin, let us consider silicon. Silicon is by far the most frequently used semiconductor in solar technology, and as a material for computer chips and modern electronics. Silicon is extracted from quartz (Silicon Dioxide, SiO2) and then purified and intensified before being used as pure silicon.


While solar manufacturers can use recycled aluminium brackets, obtaining more sustainable materials for anti-reflective glass or copper wiring has become more difficult. We'll explain why this matters later, but these supply chains are what make tracing a solar company's impact so difficult. A final product can be advertised as "made in the United States" even if 90% of its components originated in Southeast Asia.



The World's Leading Solar Manufacturers

We're guessing that none of the solar companies listed below conducts all operations entirely within the country in which they were founded. The most successful solar companies in the industry are multinational corporations that source and distribute resources across multiple countries and climate zones. The solar supply chain is truly global, which complicates the answer to the question "where are solar panels made?"

The following is a list of the leading solar manufacturers, along with their headquarters locations.

Solar Panel Manufacturer

​Location of Manufacturing Headquarters

​LG

South Korea

​SunPower

U.S.A

​Trina

China

​Q Cells

South Korea

​REC

Singapore

​Canadian Solar

Canada

​Jinko Solar

China

​LONGi Solar

China

Panasonic

Japan

​JA Solar

China

Vikram Solar

India

Waaree Solar

India

Renewsys

India



Solar Manufacturing in the United States

Thus, what explains the manufacturing shift to predominantly Southeast Asian countries? As early as the 1970s, the United States was the world leader in the development and manufacture of solar technology. One theory is that the US viewed solar at the time more through the lens of research and development than through the lens of utility-scale use, which explains why solar was developed more for spacecraft than for homes.


Additionally, Reagan-era attacks on renewable energy funding set the US back in terms of policy and perception, as the president slashed federal solar funding by roughly two-thirds and removed solar panels from the White House roof installed during the Carter administration.


This trend continued into the 1980s, and American solar companies began to struggle, eventually outsourcing their solar operations to international firms (Exxon in 1984, Arco in 1990 and Mobil in 1994). The second Bush administration intervened in 2005 with the solar tax credit, which has been a saving grace for the American solar economy since its inception, garnering bipartisan support. However, widespread private divestment from renewable energy continues to place the United States behind rapidly expanding operations in Southeast Asia.


While the United States continued its love affair with domestic oil and gas, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean companies spent the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s developing utility-scale solar technology, which was, at the time, somewhat ineffective. The solar manufacturing process has been refined over decades, costs have decreased, and Asia's abundant supply of polysilicon has undoubtedly aided the continent's accelerated research and production.



Thus, we find ourselves today: The majority of the world's leading solar panel manufacturers source at least some of their equipment in Southeast Asia. However, it's worth noting that more solar companies have established operations in the United States in recent years in order to avoid tariffs associated with international sales of solar technology.


Numerous Asian companies have established manufacturing operations in the United States, including LG in Huntsville, Alabama, Panasonic in Buffalo, New York (through a partnership with Tesla), and Q Cells in Whitfield County, Georgia.


Why Is It Important Where Solar Panels Are Manufactured?

Solar panel manufacturing is a complex process of extraction, purification, and assembly, with each step having a distinct impact. For conscientious consumers seeking answers about where the best solar panels are manufactured, the manufacturing location is less important than the manufacturing process. The following are a few reasons why:


Humanitarian Repercussions

Regrettably, solar manufacturing has not grown without incidents involving human rights violations.


In the last few years, evidence of genocide against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, where a significant portion of the world's polysilicon is produced, has emerged (the primary material in silicon used for solar cells). The United States announced plans to crack down on forced labour in the solar industry's global supply chain. Hoshine Silicon Industry, Xinjiang Daqo New Energy Company, Xinjiang East Hope Nonferrous Metals Company, Xinjiang GCL New Energy Material Technology Company, and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps were among the energy companies implicated in these violations.

The solar industry has responded by committing to assisting in the development and maintenance of an ethical solar supply chain.



Environmental Consequences

Environmental concerns associated with large-scale solar energy deployment stem from mining, emissions from purification, and solar panel disposal at the end of their useful lives.

Certain solar companies undoubtedly embody the mission of clean, ethical energy more than others. Companies such as SunPower, REC, and First Solar are pioneering efforts to recycle solar panels and develop solar cells that are repurposed in a circular economy.


Above all, we appreciate solar companies that are transparent about their environmental stewardship.


Economic Repercussions

Solar energy's economic potential in the United States requires additional (public and private) investment in the rapidly growing technology. According to the Department of Energy, "solar panels covering just 22,000 square miles of the country's total land area – roughly the size of Lake Michigan – could generate enough electricity to power the entire country."


Global competition to lead the clean energy economy is heating up, and capitalising on solar's potential with land that receives as much sunlight as the United States offers more than environmental benefits. With solar costs as low as they are in 2022 and a potential market as large as the United States, solar energy production and manufacturing represent an enormous economic opportunity with the right investment.


Reports on the Environmental Impact of Solar Panels: Choosing the Best Solar Panel

If it is not obvious at this point, solar panel manufacturing requires a complex, globally influenced balance of supply and demand. The best way to allay any ethical concerns about your potential solar panel system is to conduct due diligence on the solar company's operations. The majority of the leading solar companies will publish reports on sustainability; environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESGs); or corporate responsibility to provide customers with an overview of the systems in place to ensure long-term environmental and social development.



We've compiled the most recent reports available from the world's largest solar panel manufacturers. If you're looking for a good example of both transparency and sustainability, we recommend starting with SunPower.

 

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