Solar Import Tariff: Pain Without Benefit

The new 30% import tariff just imposed on imported solar panels and solar cells is a protective tariff without benefit.

It will not revive the declining U.S. silicon solar cell industry. It will harm U.S. workers in factories manufacturing solar panels using imported solar cells. It will hurt the rapidly expanding industry, slowing down the rapidly growing adoption of solar across the U.S.economy and costing jobs. It will slow the reduction of green house gases and the replacement of coal and natural gas plants with cheaper, zero pollution energy.

In Jacksonville, Florida the city council has just voted for a $23 million dollar subsidy for Chinese company Jinko Solar to build an 800 worker modular production plant which itself will be subject to the tariff on solar cells. Similarly, the tariff will affect the Tesla giga-factory in Buffalo that uses imported cells.

The tariff will slow, but not stop, the expansion of U.S. solar. According to Green Tech Media there will be a 11% net reduction of solar installations over the next five years. This means the installation of 61.3 gigawatts instead of a projected 68.9 gigawatts, a 7.6 gigawatt shortfall. That’s the bad news, if the projection is correct.

7.6 gigawatts of solar if it displaced fossil fuel generation would save, according to the EPA, 1.64 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour, or 7.3 million tons of carbon dioxide per year based on New England solar production per megawatt. That’s the projected ecological consequence of the solar tax.

The good news is that solar is now big and rapidly growing. 61.3 megawatts of new solar in next five years is equal to the capacity of 61 one thousand megawatt nuclear plants. Total U.S.nuclear capacity is 99 gigawatts and declining as nuke plants shut down, unable to compete while solar rises.

The 30% tariff on cells or modules is scheduled to decline by 5% a year to 15% in 2021, the last year of the tariff. The first 2.5 gigawatts of imports are exempt, as will be a blend of other specialized modules that are applying for exemption from the tariff as are a number of developing nation producers limited to a total of 9% of imports.

What does this all mean on the ground for solar installations ? A 30% module tariff means about a ten cent per watt increase in solar costs. Average residential solar cost, according to NREL (National Resource Energy Laboratory), in 2017 was $2.80 a watt installed, a 3.6 percent increase in 2018 that will decline to 1.8 percent for typical 5-6 kilowatt systems.

For utility scale solar, huge installations above 10 megawatts or 10,000 kilowatts, the price in 2017 was $1.11/watt. Here, a ten cents a watt increase means a 9 percent increase, declining to 4.5% increase.

The negative effects of the tariff are likely to be felt most strongly in emerging PV markets in Southern and other States with limited financial support and market rules for solar

Mitigating Possibilities

Solar in recent years has been characterized by plunging costs, improved efficiency, and technological innovation. Globally,wind and solar is now competitive in more than thirty countries with fossil fuels without subsidies and represents “an outright compelling investment opportunity with long-term, stable, inflation-protected returns,” according to Michael Drexler, Head of Long Term Investing, Infrastructure and Development at the World Economic Forum. The judgement of big capital.

Current responses to utility scale RFPs for solar have been an astounding less than two cents per kilowatt hour. This is stunning for a zero fuel, zero pollution low maintenance cost energy fuel. Fossil fuels and nukes simply won’t be able to compete.

In addition, there is ongoing technical innovation in all areas of renewable energy and energy efficiency, as well new applications of renewables. It is likely, for example, that new types of solar cells will replace silicon as material of choice such as using perovskite crystals, and further advances in thin film technology.

Giant offshore wind machines can now float and be anchored to the sea floor in deeper water expanding the available off-shore wind resource. A legion of new innovative renewable projects are moving forward. I am working on a pilot installation for a new Swiss design for a megawatt scale vertical axis wind turbine that is quiet, minimizes or eliminates bat and bird kills, minimizes rotor shade, has a small footprint.

As a solar developer, I am developing dual-cropping PV systems on working farms that allow PV on poles or tables, at four foot intervals, to be installed in pasture or fields without significantly reducing agricultural productivity. This system was developed by work in test plots by Prof, Stephen Herbert of the Stockbridge Institute with contractor James Marley.

The market consequences of the tariff may also lead to price reductions by Chinese suppliers, and help accelerate the reduction in cost by racking companies, inverter manufacturers, and in PV installation techniques. For example, Spice Solar, now offers solar panels integrated with racking that can be connected to the roof quickly with a few roof anchors, shipped recently at .60 per watt, a significant price reduction. The tariff may also mean foreign companies, as Jinko did in Jacksonville, building American based factories.

Tariff or not, now’s the time for us all to embrace the economic, ecological and social benefits of building a secure and prosperous efficient renewable energy future. Our pursuit of ecological economic growth and our democratic action on all levels will shape the emergence of a renewable energy future and our escape from ecological calamity by making economic growth mean ecological improvement and building step by step a prosperous ecological civilization.

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