Update: See editor’s note on the bottom for a few points of clarification.
So, this happened. President Trump won the Oval Office with a strong appeal to coal miners, their families, and their communities, but so far he seems intent on destroying the entire industry while promoting renewable energy. A case in point is Trump’s new solar tariff. The tariff could put a temporary crimp in the US solar industry, but just two days after the President authorized it, his own Department of Energy has come out with a major new initiative designed to accelerate domestic solar cell manufacturing.
With friends like these…
New Tariff? No Problem!
The new solar tariff was universally condemned by solar industry stakeholders and environmental organizations, but it’s not likely that the most dire predictions of US solar industry shrinkage will pan out.
Industry stakeholders are already gearing up low-cost solar plans to help offset any increased costs resulting from the new tariff, and for that matter an increase in PV costs could help accelerate interest in concentrating solar power, wind power, and other forms of renewable energy not affected by the tariff.
Major utilities are already fully committed to meeting customer demands for renewable energy, partly in compliance with state laws mandating renewable energy. The new tariff does nothing to nullify those laws. The fact is that utilities have already pumped big bucks into developing their solar supply pipelines, and they aren’t likely to let that investment wither on the vine.
Just one day after the new tariff announcement, for example, North Carolina’s Duke Energy announced a new comprehensive solar rebate program that should take the sting out of Trump’s maneuver.
The $62 million program has a lot of moving parts, and it’s just one of three initiatives Duke is rolling out in support of the 2017 Competitive Energy Solutions for North Carolina law.
Tariff or not, here is Duke’s five-year plan:
Currently, in North Carolina, Duke Energy has about 6,000 customers who have private solar systems — with a total capacity of just over 50 megawatts. The program expects to increase North Carolina’s private solar market by 200 percent over the next five years, providing an economic boost for the state’s solar installation business as well.
Trump’s Renewable Energy Initiatives Beat Coal Once, Twice, Thrice
For that matter, it’s kind of weird that Trump approved the new solar tariff in the first place. After all, if he really wanted to protect the US coal industry, why would he make even a token gesture to support US solar panel manufacturers?
Be that as it may, Trump has backed up the new solar tariff by pouring taxpayer dollars — yes, some of which are contributed by coal miners, their families and their communities — into a new initiative aimed at making the US solar panel manufacturing more competitive.
Here’s the lowdown from EERE, the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy:
Today [January 24], the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced a $3 million prize competition to reenergize innovation in U.S. solar manufacturing. The American Made Solar Prize will incentivize the nation’s entrepreneurs to develop new processes and products that will reassert American leadership in the solar marketplace.
For “reassert American leadership in the solar marketplace” sub in “lose more coal jobs in the US,” and you can see where this is going.
In terms of the Energy Department’s overall solar acceleration budget, $3 million is actually a drop in the bucket. After all, as EERE explains, the US solar industry got a $400 million assist from President Trump in 2017, and that’s just counting programs funded through the Energy Department.
Nevertheless, a little goes a long way. The new $3 million competition is designed to do this:
…lower barriers American innovators face in reaching manufacturing scale by accelerating the cycles of learning, while helping to create partnerships that connect entrepreneurs to the private sector and the network of DOE’s national laboratories.
In case there’s any doubt about just how much President Trump loves renewable energy and hates coal, Energy Secretary Rick Perry provided this statement in support of the new initiative:
The United States possesses the talent, expertise, and vision to surpass the rest of the world in solar technologies and forge a new solar energy landscape around the globe. The American Made Solar Prize will galvanize our country’s entrepreneurs, allow them to utilize technologies and innovations developed through DOE’s early-stage research and development, and, ultimately, bring new American-made products to market.
If you haven’t been following the Rick Perry news all year, make no mistake: this isn’t lip service. Despite ample cause for criticism on women’s reproductive health issues among other topics, Perry has been aggressively promoting the Energy Department’s renewable energy programs and its sprawling network of national laboratories nonstop ever since he won the top slot at the agency last spring.
The new American-Made Challenge for solar innovation represents the culmination of those efforts:
The American-Made Challenge will bring together the world’s best in class research base with its unparalleled entrepreneurial support system consisting of pioneering maker spaces, dozens of energy incubators and 17 National Laboratories to create a sweeping portfolio of innovations primed for private investment and commercial scale up.
Got all that? But wait, there’s more:
…It will leverage the 3D printing and small batch manufacturing facilities that exist across the country to speed up innovation cycles through rapid prototyping and iteration. Testing and development capabilities of the National Labs will bring world-class research expertise and analytic tools to U.S. entrepreneurs…
What are you waiting for? To participate, check out the Solar Prize website or contact President Donald Trump’s Department of Energy at email@example.com.
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Image (screenshot): via americanmadechallenge.org, map shows US national laboratories and potential partners.
Editor’s note: For clarity’s sake, it should be emphasized here that some mixture of subtle sarcasm and various other figures of speech are used below to mock the Donald Trump administration’s energy policies and Trump’s comments. Furthermore, I don’t think the writer or many others believe Trump himself has thought much about these issues or has a notable hand in what has been happening at the Department of Energy — especially not the stuff that has been in support of renewables. The author does seem to believe Rick Perry has a strongly pro-renewables gene, whereas I and surely some others think the department’s career staff are responsible for much of this while Secretary Perry is probably happy enough to have the department support anything that boosts the US economy and makes him look good (heck, maybe he even has another presidential run in mind and is trying to pick up green brownie points).
Yes, there are a few positive responses to the possibly illegal solar tariffs the Trump administration is putting on Chinese solar panels (which, it should be emphasized, is being done simply because those panels are cheap — not due to dumping or unfair subsidies from the Chinese government). However, the net effect on solar installations, jobs, and overall industry progress is not seen as a positive thing by more than a few people in the industry. And the responses come at government/taxpayer cost to make up for higher prices expected in the industry — higher prices that do not help the United States but do hurt US jobs and the economy. Overall, while there may be some slim silver linings to the tariffs, the overall aims for the industry can’t really be justified as thoughtful or positive and the overall net effect is almost certainly negative for the United States. —Zach
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