4 Happy Thoughts about the Trump Solar Tariffs

February 22, 2018 | 1:21 pm
U.S. Air Force/Jennifer Green-Lanchoney
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

I’ve talked about the many problems with President Trump’s recent decision to tax imports of solar cells and modules. I’m an optimist by nature, though, so I’m always looking for the silver lining. Here are four theories I’ll be testing with my sunny-side take on all this: Solar will grow, solar jobs will grow, the solar industry is strong, and we are strong.

1. Solar will grow

We want more, not less. (Credit: John Rogers)

While higher prices due to the Trump tariffs will hurt solar sales, the goal of our president’s move, he says, is to boost US manufacturing of solar cells and panels. And, indeed, it seems likely that new US solar factories will get built… though that might well have happened with or without the import tariffs. (There’s a good discussion of what/who’s in play from GTM here.)

More likely is for some existing US-based concerns to ramp up operations. That’ll include companies using silicon solar cells, the kinds covered by the new taxes, and companies using other materials, like cadmium telluride.

In terms of modules manufacturing, the new policy allows 2.5 gigawatts (2,500 megawatts) of solar cells to come in without the new taxes. That exemption will provide a route to lower costs for some US-based manufacturing operations (assuming the government sorts out who gets the tariff-free cells).

Whether US manufacturing happens or not, modules will come in, though at higher prices; even with a drop last year in new solar installations, US demand for solar far outweighs our own capacity to produce it. While the decision hits most of our major solar trading partners, solar products from some others, too—India, notably, and Turkey, among others—are exempt from the new taxes.

So, while President Trump’s move will slow our climb back up to the heights of 2016 and beyond, it won’t kill it. I’ll be watching for new cell/module manufacturing, and for growth overall in how much solar we have in this country.

2. Solar jobs will grow

US solar jobs fell last year (for the first time since the census began), in part because of uncertainty over the solar tariffs. And there’s more to come, at least versus what would have happened in the absence of the Trump taxes: The Solar Energy Industries Association projects 23,000 lost US solar jobs.

That doesn’t mean that solar jobs will be dropping in absolute terms as they did in 2017; projections have us back up at 2016 levels by this year. But it does mean that the growth in jobs will be a lot slower than it could have been.

Also, while solar jobs fell in 2017, those losses weren’t evenly spread across the states. The top two solar jobs states, California and Massachusetts, lost 17,000 jobs between them. But even in the down year, 29 states plus DC grew, employment-wise. The solar census release calls out growth specifically in Utah, Minnesota, Arizona, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Tennessee.

So I’m going to be paying attention to not just the overall job count, but where US solar jobs are growing, and why.

3. The solar industry is strong

I certainly saw ups and downs during my years in the solar industry, and can attest to its fortitude. As one solar company executive has said,

“The solar industry has come through worse policy decisions and will come through this one, too… The solar industry is nothing if not resilient, and I’m confident the innovative, tough and resourceful members of the industry will find workarounds to the latest obstacle placed in solar’s path.”

Profit margins are tight, but we can expect lots of companies to innovate, to find ways to counteract the negative effects of the Trump tariffs.

What I’ll be looking for: Innovation, cost-savings, economies of scale that get us back on track for making solar more affordable for all despite our president.

Credit: Aeon Solar via NREL

4. We are strong

My strongest hopes, though, rest with us. Because the biggest question surrounding the new Trump tariffs is how we’re going to respond—we who get clean energy, we who understand that solar is a real part of our response to climate change, and a real part of our economy.

We as homeowners don’t need to be deterred by our president’s action, and neither do we as employees, businesspeople, and their customers. While any price increase decreases affordability for solar, plenty of both homeowners and businesses were “going solar” when prices were higher. Solar customers of all stripes are serious, and driven by more than the savings.

And we as constituents, taxpayers, and voters can push to make sure that states and cities more than make up for President Trump’s unfortunate decision, with policies and initiatives to expand solar access, to improve financing, to increase economies of scale.

So maybe the biggest upside of all is that our president’s moves, whatever his motives, give us yet another reason to try harder for solar.

I’ll be watching for states to step up, for companies to innovate, for all of us to keep saying yes to driving energy progress in ways that stabilize energy prices, increase reliability, secure jobs, and accelerate our move toward a vibrant and just power sector with solar fully in the mix.

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.