Aluminum solar Frames Threaten US Market Expansion

Mar 7, 2024

By Gregg Patterson, CEO

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

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 and move to domestic recycled steel.

The case for steel over aluminum is so compelling that the fact it would create U.S. jobs is almost an afterthought.

Aluminum’s Risky Foreign Supply Chain

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’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 while dramatically increasing logistics costs.

Domestic Steel is De-risked, Transparent, and Decarbonized

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 and immediately contribute to the domestic content of our solar industry.

Origami Solar steel module frame imageSteel 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 leading stakeholders in the solar industry — and, indeed, the U.S. and its European allies — are about combating the climate crisis.

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.

Featured image photo courtesy of US Steel.