The Denver Post this morning reports that a lack of rare earths may be inhibiting the domestic solar cell industry. How this is so, they never quite describe. There’s no calculation, for instance, of what percent of a solar panel’s production cost comes from rare earths. Possibly, this is because rare earths aren’t actually used in the production of solar cells. According to a DOE study on strategic materials, solar cells use indium, tellurium, gallium, and maybe soon, selenium, none of which is in the lathanide series of rare earths. A briefing by the Rare Earth Industry Trade Association on the importance of rare earths to green energy applications doesn’t mention solar at all.
By coincidence, the New York Times this morning ran a piece on why solar panel manufacturers are relocating to China, and it seems that the reason has nothing to do with rare earths, which aren’t mentioned at all, and everything to do with our willingness to take the place of Germany and Spain in directing massive subsidies to the panels’ production. And in spite of our increasing mandates on so-called renewable energy as a source of electricity, it’s also not clear that we’ll be willing to force utilities to pay the exorbitant rates necessary to make large solar arrays profitable.
That, not the absence of a local rare earth supply, is what’s threatening a domestic solar industry.