The US and a clean energy future

If it has seemed like a long gray winter on the United States sustainability front, at least there was a ray of February sunshine when Consumers Energy announced it would stop go to zero coal by 2040.

Consumers, the largest energy provider in Michigan, says it will turn to even more sunshine while reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent as it shifts to solar, wind and other renewables. The utility shut down seven of 12 coal-fired plants in 2016, and currently operates two large-scale wind and solar sites.

It’s another slow but steady step in the right direction for the U.S. as it moves toward a clean energy future – but that future has seen nothing but clouds on the horizon since President Donald Trump and his new administration took office. The president, who campaigned on a pro-business platform and said he thinks climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, has made good on his promises to pull the U.S. out of the global Paris Climate Agreement and roll back American environmental protections.

His latest “America First” move was to slap up to 30 percent in tariffs on imported solar panels for the next four years in response to the long-standing competition disadvantage that American manufacturers faced because of heavily subsidized Chinese panels flooding the market. Under both Obama and Trump, some 30 American companies collapsed in the past five years because of unfair trade practices; that’s according to Suniva, one of two companies that filed the lawsuits on which Trump’s decision was based.

“These cases were filed by American businesses and thoroughly litigated at the International Trade Commission over a period of several months,” said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in a January statement explaining the new tariffs and expected impacts. “The ITC found that U.S. producers had been seriously injured by imports and made several recommendations to the President.”

Ostensibly, the trade protection measure is meant to create favorable conditions for America’s own solar industry while reining in the Chinese. In reality, other U.S.-friendly countries including South Korea and Canada are challenging Trump’s move and its implications for their own economies. What’s worse, though, is the damage that solar panel tariffs will have on America’s own struggling solar companies.

Some segments of the domestic solar industry continue to flourish as demand grows for not only large home installations, but smaller solar items offered by US-based companies such as Outdoor Solar Store – with in-demand items such as solar spotlights and motion lights, solar lamp posts and solar street and parking lot lights, increasingly in use by private businesses as well as some municipalities.

The U.S. solar industry relies on imports, about a third of them from Malaysia, for about 80 percent of the supply to its USD$28 billion market. So there’s no way to avoid hurting American companies and American workers, many of whom have installation and maintenance jobs in a clean-energy sector that was once touted as the revival of the American economy. Some observers think Trump’s tariffs aren’t even about China as much as they’re intentionally designed to shut down the viability of renewables.

And that’s no help to existing American companies – even though U.S. cities, the private sector and their partners are defiant in their opposition to Trump policies and committed to cost-effective renewables. Right now, industry analysts don’t see American firms ramping up panel production. JinkoSolar plans a new facility in the U.S. announced in January, but there’s not a groundswell of energy, so to speak, that’s behind them. Quite the opposite is true as the American solar industry continues to shed jobs.

The Solar Foundation released an annual report on February 7 that found the U.S. lost almost 10,000 solar-related jobs in 2017, the first year in which the numbers have decreased since the foundation began releasing Solar Jobs Census data in 2010. Many states saw increases, to be sure, but they’re low volume numbers in place like Michigan where there’s only 4,000 or so workers and there was no loss. In California, though, the numbers were down 14 percent; in Nevada, 22 percent; in Hawaii, 15 percent.

SunPower, for example, has put a $20 million U.S. employment expansion on hold. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that 23,000 American jobs will be lost this year because of tariffs meant to put America first. “While tariffs in this case will not create adequate cell or module manufacturing to meet U.S. demand, or keep foreign-owned Suniva and SolarWorld afloat, they will create a crisis in a part of our economy that has been thriving, which will ultimately cost tens of thousands of hard-working, blue-collar Americans their jobs,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, the SEIA president and CEO.

Not everyone in the industry sees the tariff as entirely negative, or as an insurmountable barrier. “Our industry will emerge from this,” Hopper assured. “The case for solar energy is just too strong to be held down for long, but the severe near-term impacts of these tariffs are unfortunate and avoidable.”