Prolific journalist and blogger Scott Thill (of Wired, Salon, Huffington Post, Alternet, Grist, SolarEnergy.net, and probably other outlets) interviewed me a little while back about US/EU tariffs on Chinese solar cells and solar modules (which dominate the solar cell and solar module market). Honestly, the interview could have gone either way, but he got me on this one. In one of my solar news roundup posts, I shared the article he ended up writing, but I also thought it would be worth sharing the full questions and answers here. Have a look and chime in if you think I’m an idiot, a smart guy, or simply have some points worth discussing (questions from Scott are in italics):
1) How much of a future does this dispute have? Given our desperate need for accelerated solarization, how far does US/EU/GER feel it can push? How can voters help, once they find out who to help?
I’m tentatively hopeful that negotiations are finally occurring that will move us all past this. There have been good signs that’s the case. However, I don’t think SolarWorld is really competitive, and as the leading company behind these disputes, I’m not so sure it will ever agree to a non-legal negotiation. Also, as SEIA has stepped forward and made a strong move to stop the litigation, SolarWorld has publicly criticized the association, which wasn’t encouraging.
2) How will this dispute affect current solar customers, and new adopters? Will their bills change? I read this conflict has delayed overseas factories from coming online, which might explain the “solar panel shortage” concern.
I don’t think it’s going to have a huge impact in the end, but I think it is temporarily raising prices, delaying production plans, and causing uncertainty that can only hurt consumers. However, I recently read from one market research firm that the much-discussed “solar panel shortage” isn’t actually coming. We’ll see, but I’m hopeful that there’s enough production capacity getting built that we will be fine.
3) Is there an argument made for supporting US tariffs on Chinese imports as an incentive to localize production, for the exponential ramp we’re going to need to cut emissions? Given how fast solar must grow to combat global warming, doesn’t it make sense to manufacture and trade more locally than before, to save CO2/CH4/etc as well as generate local jobs? Is anyone in US/EU/GER actually making that argument?
Hmm, I haven’t seen that argument made, but it probably is a good one. The main thing in this case for me that would make me support SolarWorld’s position is if China was subsidizing its manufacturers to such an extent that they were actually bankrupting genuinely more competitive solar manufacturers in other countries, and if the result would be negative in the medium- to long-term: solar panel technology not advancing as quickly as it could and not competing with other energy technologies as much. However, not knowing about that level of detail, I have been taking cues from Jigar Shah and CASE since I see them as having the same global interests as I have and more inside knowledge. Furthermore, the companies I see being at the cutting edge of solar tech — such as SunPower and First Solar — have survived fine through the challenges.
4) Would additional US public/private funding apportioned to the solar sector, instead of the “natural gas” industry, solve this problem? Is the US undersubsidizing the sector in comparison to China, and even its compatriots in EU and GER?
I’d say “Yes” and “Yes!”
Image: Rooftop solar power via Shutterstock