Trump Is About to Stifle U.S. Solar Power. Why?
In a small Oval Office meeting this summer, President Donald Trump lashed out at his senior economic advisers for their tepidness on trade policy. After grumbling disapprovingly about the “globalists in the room,” Trump reportedly looked to his newly appointed Chief of Staff John Kelly and made a demand: “I want tariffs. And I want someone to bring me some tariffs.”
He now seems to be getting what he wanted.
Last week, the administration announced it will hit the Canadian manufacturer Bombardier with a 220% tariff on its aircraft. Just days earlier, the International Trade Commission opened the door for Trump to levy tariffs on imported solar panels—a more sweeping trade policy shift. White House aides say Trump is 90% likely to enact solar tariffs through his authority under a 1974 law.
After decades of manufacturing job losses under North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)-style agreements, it’s potentially positive that policymakers are considering all options on trade. But the looming solar tariffs aren’t about industrial jobs or Chinese competition or trade fairness—they’re about protecting fossil fuel interests and blocking Americans from harnessing the power of the sun.
Unlike aircraft manufacturing—in which the U.S. has world leaders like Boeing—there’s little existing American manufacturing capacity in solar. While it’s conceivable that tariffs could lead to some new domestic panel production, this is uncertain. What is clear is that with the proposed $0.40 per watt tariff for solar cells and a floor price of $0.78 per watt for solar modules, prices for most solar installations would roughly double. According to a recent study from Greentech Media, these trade policy changes would likely halt two-thirds of U.S. solar installation through 2022.
While Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement was mostly symbolic, this potential action against clean energy would have measurable destructive impacts on the climate. The world has been banking on residential, commercial, and utility-scale solar as important drivers of U.S. emissions reductions.
Trump purportedly wants tariffs to promote domestic job creation and economic growth. But by these yardsticks, solar tariffs would be self-defeating. According to recent studies, a substantial tariff could lead to the loss of 88,000 solar energy jobs out of an estimated 260,000 in the U.S. today. By comparison, there are only 54,000 coal mining jobs in the entire country. Because solar generation is dispersed across homes and businesses—not concentrated in mines, refining facilities, and power plants—it supports lots of local jobs in design, sales, finance, installation, and maintenance.
For Trump, solar tariffs probably seem like a win-win: a chance to look tough on China and other big manufacturing competitors while giving a gift to political supporters in the fossil fuel industry.
But on a closer look, restricting the growth of solar would present him with some serious headaches. Even many red state Republicans will wince at the local job losses that would come from these tariffs. Solar is no longer just a California dream: It has been taking hold rapidly in places like Texas, Utah, Georgia, and Indiana. Despite the polarized politics of climate change, 72% of Republicans still want to accelerate the growth of renewable energy options, according to a recent study from the conservative ClearPath Foundation. Look at the emergence of transpartisan energy reform movements like the Green Tea Party—a band of green groups and Tea Partiers that fight government regulations on rooftop solar.
Even the Heritage Foundation, the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, and other right-wing organizations have joined environmental groups in opposing the tariffs on the basis of free trade ideology. Eli Lehrer, president of the libertarian R Street Institute, called the solar case “an example of the worst kind of trade protectionism.”
If Trump really wants to expand American solar manufacturing, there are plenty of ways to do it. For example, he could direct the money collected from existing solar tariffs to the development of domestic solar manufacturing; he could work to extend solar Investment Tax Credits that are set to scale down soon; or he could apply what’s worked in other countries in terms of strengthening the solar manufacturing supply chain and investing in the right research and development.
There’s certainly a case for calling out the “globalists” on trade. Over the past decade and a half of laissez faire trade policies, the U.S. has lost more than five million manufacturing jobs. But these facts are not a free pass for policies that would demonstrably destroy jobs and environmental progress.
Americans are still processing September’s split-screen images of record wildfires and hundred-year hurricanes. Puerto Rico is still in an unprecedented state of emergency after the latest Category Four storm. This is not the moment for policies that would willfully stifle the rise of renewable energy.
Justin Talbot-Zorn is a Truman National Security Fellow and public policy adviser working on environmental and economic issues. He served as legislative director to three members of Congress. Follow him on Twitter.