At the start of this week, the US signed off on tariffs for two items largely imported from abroad, particularly China: washing machines and solar panels. For obvious reasons, we’ll be focusing on the latter.
As spotted by BBC News, this decision was made due to the findings of the US International Trade Commission, whose official documentation explains that China’s incredibly cheap solar cells and modules are undercutting the US’ own industry. Citing China’s global dominance in this regard, the US is now seeking to push back against what it calls “unfair trade practices”.
As a result, the US will now place a tariff (tax) on imported solar panels, a whopping 30 percent, as soon as a 2.5-gigawatt capacity is imported. This will decrease over the next four years to 15 percent.
As Vox explains, this will likely benefit those manufacturing solar panels in the US, but it will harm those seeking to install them. Most of those working in the US solar industry are actually installers by far, so this move will likely cost the country tens of thousands of jobs. Bloomberg also points out that the US imports 80 percent of its solar equipment, mostly from Asia.
This new trade war salvo may be protecting some American interests, but it's worth pointing out that the federal government doesn’t appear to really be that interested in improving its solar energy industry. In fact, it’s often openly hostile to it, and seems to spend a lot of its time trying to prop up the coal industry instead.
Remember when a US delegation to the most recent UN climate summit shocked attendees by touting the use of coal power? At the time, this was described as “like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit”.
Anyone listening to the administration alone may be convinced that coal power must be saved at all costs. A look at the facts, however, reveals an industry that even in 2017 lost more mining jobs than it made.
Here’s something else you may not know: Not only did renewable energy in general account for two-thirds of new power added to the world’s electrical grids back in 2016, but a report by the International Energy Agency revealed that solar power is the fastest-growing source of new energy, as of 2017.
This is largely thanks to China, whose government policies and increased drive to switch to a low-carbon economy accounted for half of all new solar panels installed that year. In fact, both the US and China, along with a (slightly stagnating Europe) are mostly responsible for the recent upsurge in the proliferation of solar power.
Even the US document focusing on the tariffs acknowledges this. “From 2012 to 2016, the volume of solar generation capacity installed annually in the United States more than tripled,” it reads.
Solar power is becoming increasingly cheaper, and communities up and down the planet – from those in low-income or developing nations to those in rural, conservative America – are adopting it. Another report highlighted the perhaps surprising influence of the latter: eight of the 10 fastest-growing US solar markets between 2016 and 2017 were states that voted for Trump.
The cheapness of solar panels is partly responsible for the massive uptick in installation of domestic solar panels across the US. Clearly, Americans increasingly want cost-effective solar panels to power their homes and cities, no matter where they come from.
Solar power still has a long way to go until it displaces still cheap coal, but it’s getting there. Sadly, regardless of the motivation behind it, this latest move by the US looks set to slow the US transition towards renewable energy.