U.S. Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu recently described China’s bold cleantech investments as a ‘Sputnik moment’ for the United States.
On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, triggered a two-decade-long competition between the Soviet Union and the United States to explore the heavens. As a physicist and engineer, I look back on this period as a catalyst for extraordinary advances in rocketry, electronics, computing and photovoltaics. Incidentally, space vehicles provided one of the first sensible applications for photovoltaic cells. Though the Space Race began in fear, it ended in hope, and lead to decades of innovation around the globe.
Some would paint the current race to innovate our way out of our reliance on dirty, unsustainable energy with the same brush of fear and animosity. I believe it presents a unique opportunity for us to come together for a common purpose.
In September 2001, I left my position as research directory of Pacific Solar in Sydney and founded Suntech with the goal of making solar electricity affordable for everyone. At the time, the average levelized price of solar electricity was in the range of $0.80 per kWh, ten times higher than retail electricity prices where I lived in Australia. Today, solar electricity costs less than $0.15 per kWh in many developed economies with abundant sunlight. None of those cost reductions would have been possible without progressive, long-term and consistent government policies, as well as the globalization of the solar value chain. While China plays an important role in the production of solar panels, that’s just one part of an interdependent global industry. Over the last decade, Suntech’s largest equipment suppliers have been U.S. and European companies that have consistently developed more efficient processing equipment. Over the last decade, Suntech’s largest suppliers of silicon wafers -- accounting for the majority of production costs -- have been U.S. and European companies who have pioneered silicon purification and wafering methods. In fact, both China and the U.S. are net exporters in the solar industry, according to the U.S. Solar Energy Industry Association, and major contributors to the global solar industry value chain. But most of the jobs can’t be exported. Numerous studies show that 60 percent to 75 percent of all solar industry jobs are created in end-use markets -- jobs such as logistics, sales, engineering and construction.
At the same time, market forces are pushing the upstream solar industry to localize. As oil prices continue to rise, it’s unsustainable to ship tons of silicon thousands of miles for processing and then ship tons of panels thousands of miles for installation. We will eventually need complete, sustainable industry supply chains in every major region. That’s why Suntech has begun manufacturing more than 10,000 solar panels per month in Goodyear, Arizona, as a start. We’re now seeing the greater Phoenix area quickly emerge as a major solar industry hub, as photovoltaics are one of the fastest and most modular energy generation technologies you can build -- and with little to no water use.
The Space Race arguably ended in July 1975 with the launch of Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a joint mission in the spirit of collaboration, or friendly competition, rather than conflict. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. went on to work together on both the Mir (Peace) and International Space Stations, learning that there was more to learn from each other than fear.
The same is true today with the U.S. and China -- the world’s two largest energy consumers. Facing diminishing resources and growing costs of fossil fuel extraction and combustion, cooperation is more critical than ever to our future. Suntech was recently honored by Secretary Chu’s visit to our Shanghai R&D and production facility, where we discussed the future of solar technology. I believe Secretary Chu would agree: the U.S. and China have more to gain from collaboration, or friendly competition, rather than conflict. What will result is new R&D leadership, new entrepreneurs, and new manufacturers in both the U.S. and China. Let’s seize this ‘Sputnik moment’ to reinvest in math, science and engineering -- from primary school to advanced R&D -- on both sides of the Pacific.
What also emerged from the Space Race was the modern environmental movement, and Earth Day, inspired by the first pictures of Earth taken from outer space. As former U.N. Secretary General U Thant proclaimed, “May there be only peaceful and cheerful Earth Days to come for our beautiful Spaceship Earth as it continues to spin and circle in frigid space with its warm and fragile cargo of animate life.”
Solar technology now accounts for more than 0.1 percent of global electricity production. Believe it or not, that’s progress. But we still have a long way to go -- with renewable generation and storage technologies -- to solve our planet’s energy and environmental crisis. These challenges should not be underestimated, and we cannot afford delay. The solar industry is one of the first global solutions to one of the first global crises, and that makes sense: the sun shines across borders on the rich and poor alike; it doesn’t need a passport or visa; and it isn’t subject to duties or tariffs, political conflict or broken infrastructure. Let’s extend the same limitless opportunity to all those willing to harness nature’s cleanest and most abundant energy resource.
It’s as true today as it was in 1957: the sky’s the limit.
Dr. Zhengrong Shi is the founder and CEO of Suntech, the world’s largest producer of solar panels.