For the past five years, the solar industry in the United States has boomed, becoming a reliable employment engine and giving hope to policymakers seeking to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
But late Monday afternoon, President Donald Trump approved import fees that analysts say will send the price of solar panels surging and halt hiring in an industry that has grown 17 times faster than the U.S. economy.
“It’s political fodder to make the United States look like it’s tough on China, and it’s protecting American jobs,” Noah Ginsburg, a director at a New York-based nonprofit that helps low-income communities install solar panels, told HuffPost. “But the reality on the ground is deploying these tariffs will destroy American jobs and negatively impact anyone who wants to participate in and benefit from clean energy.”
Solar companies created 1 in 50 new jobs in the U.S. in 2016, with the help of imported solar panels that drastically reduced prices. The Solar Foundation projects that number will be even higher for 2017; its report on last year’s figures is due out in a few weeks. Most of those jobs are at companies that install solar panels on rooftops and build large solar farms for utilities and big corporations.
At the same time, domestic solar panel manufacturers have suffered, unable to compete with cheaper rivals from abroad. Last year, Suniva, a Georgia-based manufacturer owned by a Chinese company, filed a trade complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission after declaring bankruptcy, arguing that it’s impossible to compete with cheap imports. In May, SolarWorld, the Oregon-based subsidiary of a German panel maker, joined the complaint. The companies requested that the White House impose fees on imported panels under the 1974 Trade Act that would more than double the price of solar cells from about 33 cents to roughly 78 cents per watt.
Instead, Trump approved a 30 percent fee on all imported solar panels, decreasing by 5 percent per year over four years. The decision is in line with what the ITC recommended in October, a proposal Suniva called “disappointing.”
In a joint statement, Suniva and SolarWorld “applauded” Trump, but urged him to increase the first-year tariff to 50 percent.
“Our companies and workers are grateful to hear the President understands the seriousness of the problem facing our solar manufacturers in Michigan, Georgia, Oregon and across the country,” said the statement, signed by SolarWorld Americas Inc. CEO Juergen Stein and Suniva executive vice president Matt Card. “Now the President can save and rebuild this great American industry and create thousands of jobs by immediately imposing 50 percent tariffs ―the strongest tariffs possible.”
Their complaint marked the first major trade case before the Trump administration, and offered a fascinating test of the president’s “American First” nationalist agenda, which has pushed fossil fuel production as its primary energy policy. The president, who has railed against renewable energy and dismissed climate change as a hoax, had significant discretion over the decision.
This article was originally published on HuffPost and republished on hcn.org as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.