Aluminum solar frames are a house of cards

Switching to steel would mitigate many of the risks that currently plague the solar industry.

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January 23, 2024
Worker processes aluminum frames

Photo credit: Costfoto / NurPhoto via Getty Images

The entire solar industry rests — both literally and figuratively — on a dangerously vulnerable material. 

It is vulnerable to the United States' increasingly fraught relationship with China. It is vulnerable to snarled supply chains and to the increased size and demanding mounting methods for utility-scale modules. And it’s vulnerable to the severe weather that climate change has made so much worse.

That material, from which the industry makes all the frames on which solar modules rest, is aluminum. It is one of the most carbon intensive metals, and the bulk of its supply originates in one of the world’s most coal-intensive nations an ocean away. It is time for solar to leave aluminum behind.

The solar industry will be subject to catastrophic risk — and have less capacity to decarbonize — if it does not replace these vulnerable aluminum frames with strong, recycled steel ones. The case for steel over aluminum is so compelling that the fact it would create U.S. jobs is almost an afterthought. 

First and foremost, aluminum’s supply chain has enormous risks. China controls roughly 58% of the global aluminum supply, and Russia controls a further 5%. The U.S. produces only 2% of the global supply; we import roughly 90% of the aluminum we use. What little we do produce here should be reserved for critical purposes where aluminum has no substitute, like airplanes and missiles

The result is that the U.S. solar industry is almost entirely dependent on China for aluminum frames. Given the increasing tension in the U.S.-China relationship and the long history of trade disputes between the two nations, relying on Chinese exports to rebuild our domestic solar module manufacturing industry is a risky proposition.

Yet there are also risks to the aluminum supply chain beyond malice. Shipping itself is risky and expensive. We all remember when the Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal for a week, delaying cargos worldwide. Less well known is that the Ever Forward did the same thing outside the Port of Baltimore. And we’re all familiar with images of ships waiting outside the Port of Los Angeles, but ships also regularly back up for weeks at the Panama Canal, which itself faces long-term threats to its viability. Meanwhile, the industry is plagued by ever-present labor issues and armed threats in vital arteries like the Red Sea. 

Given the risks inherent to bulk shipping, even in the best-case scenario, solar module manufacturers can waste weeks waiting on supplies. In a worst-case scenario, with widespread interruptions, delays can impact critical deliveries to utility projects with firm construction deadlines.

Steel negates all these risks. The U.S. steel industry produces the metal at such tremendous scale that producing all of the frames required for the entire solar industry would amount to a rounding error for the industry. In one fell swoop, U.S. industry could eliminate both the geopolitical risk and the supply chain risk that now define the solar industry.

Steel frames could similarly diminish another of aluminum’s risks, namely that aluminum — a relatively weak metal — can buckle under the size of new, enormous utility-scale solar panels when extreme weather inevitably sweeps through. Steel, a far stronger and more durable metal, comes with no such concerns. Once an aluminum frame breaks, the fragile solar panel it supports will break as well; steel-made frames, however, can withstand the increasingly severe wind and snow loads. 

Finally, so much of the case for solar depends on the fact that it is the energy source most able to replace fossil fuels and reverse climate change. That makes its dependence on aluminum, one of the most carbon-intensive metals to produce, self-defeating. Producing Chinese aluminum solar module frames to support just one gigawatt of solar capacity, for instance, releases 217,000 tons of carbon emissions, or the same as a year’s worth of emissions from 48,000 cars

Recycled steel, however, is far less carbon-intensive to produce. That is why the entire industry shifting to steel would save 10 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year. That’s the same as taking 2.2 million cars off the road.

Ultimately, whether we transition rapidly from aluminum to steel frames comes down to how serious players in the solar industry — and, indeed, the U.S. and its European allies — are about combating the climate crisis. No national security strategist or risk analyst would say it is a good idea to have the success or failure of one of our highest national priorities rest entirely in the hands of an increasingly hostile foreign competitor, not least one who is willing and able to launch a war that could grind international trade to a halt.

So, are we serious? Are we committed to building a safe, secure and transparent, domestic supply chain? Are we serious about decarbonization? Are we serious about shoring up our immense vulnerabilities?

Steel gives us a chance to prove we are. The inertia that aluminum represents would prove we’re not. 

Gregg Patterson is the CEO of Origami Solar, which makes steel frames for solar modules. The opinions represented in this contributed article are solely those of the author, and do not reflect the views of Latitude Media or any of its staff.

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