Published on January 26th, 2018 | by Zachary Shahan0
MSNBC & CNBC Miss The Key Points Of Trump Solar Tariffs Story
January 26th, 2018 by Zachary Shahan
I’m a fan of MSNBC — it has solid experts with strong and independent viewpoints that typically add a lot of context and useful detail. Much more than trying to fit facts into a narrative that suits them (and ignore facts that don’t), the hosts and panelists seem to have an open mind and follow key points of information in the most logical direction. There are many thoughtful Republicans and former Republicans on staff as well as progressive Democrats.
However, the recent news about tariffs on Chinese solar cells and solar panels brought out how little they follow the energy industry and how little they understand what the problems are with this specific case. Bringing in CNBC Editor-at-Large John Harwood didn’t help either, as he also didn’t note (and didn’t seem to not know) the most important points of the story.
I don’t blame the hosts and reporters, who cover many other issues, for not knowing the intricacies of such an odd case. However, they should have on call or should have at least found a clean energy expert who could get to the core points of the news (hint, hint).
The Solar Tariffs Are Not Because China Or Chinese Companies Have Done Anything Wrong — They Are Not A Response To Illegal Dumping Or Chinese Subsidies For Solar Panels (That’s An Old Case That’s Been Resolved)
It’s totally fine that the main MSNBC segment highlights that the price of solar panels will likely go up for US consumers, but the intro quickly makes a counterproductive and misleading or false claim (but an understandable one if you’re not steeped in the industry). The confusion must come from the fact that there were trade cases for years regarding Chinese dumping and excessive subsidies. Those cases are closed, but superb host Stephanie Rule mistakenly conflated those old cases with the current one. The new tariffs have nothing to do with dumping or Chinese subsidies or China doing anything unfair or illegal. The new solar tariffs are being put on Chinese solar cells and solar panels only because they are cheap and two solar companies claim they have been seriously harmed by the imports.
It’s not a surprise or confusing that large Chinese manufacturers that produce more solar panels than anyone else in the world also have the lowest cost solar panels. It’s not a crime that they do. Putting tariffs on them just because they are cheap is questionable trade practice, protectionist, could get the World Trade Organization on our back, and could actually trigger a trade war. It also hurts the US solar industry and our broader economy (see next section).
The law that a couple of solar panel companies brought to the government is a law that is almost never used to bring cases like this, because it’s so absurd and flimsy. Even if cases are brought to the government, reasonable administrations of yesteryear essentially ignored them. We can’t go penalizing every foreign-made product that is cheaper than an American-made product in the sector. Tens of thousands of US companies can claim they are hurt from cheaper foreign products — the United States is not the global base point of cheap manufacturing. If the US federal government puts tariffs on every product that’s cheaper than American-made products, US consumer goods would become considerably more expensive and we’d most likely be slammed in the global economy for our protectionist stance.
Only two companies — SolarWorld, whose parent company is headquartered in Germany (not the US), and Suniva, whose parent company is (ironically) Chinese and vocally opposed this case — brought this obscure trade case to the federal government. Actually, Suniva’s subsidiary wasn’t even the instigator in that half of the case — a NY-based investment firm that lent Suniva money and wanted it back was. Thousands of US companies, on the other hand, opposed the trade case since it will hurt their businesses and the financial case for going solar in the United States. More on that next.
The Solar Panel Tariffs Will Result In More US Job Losses Than New Or Protected Jobs
The US solar sector employs some 260,000 people, but the biggest chunk of those jobs are in the installation industry — not manufacturing. What do you think considerably higher solar panels mean for those installation companies, installers, and the US economy?
That’s right — saving a relatively small number of jobs in China-based Suniva’s US arm and Germany-based SolarWorld’s US arm will provide less benefit than the harm caused in the solar installation, finance, and sales segments of the industry.
Unfortunately, John Harwood stated that Trump would “protect some jobs” with these tariffs but didn’t add the important note that more jobs would be lost. Stephanie Rule didn’t bring up the point either. Harwood also notes that because solar panel prices have come down so much, he doesn’t think the tariffs will have a “substantial effect on the cost curve of the solar industry.” The solar industry definitely disagrees, and is bracing now for the loss of tens of thousands of solar jobs because of the higher prices.
Harwood also stumbled through an explanation that one of the biggest US solar companies (First Solar) doesn’t use the same kind of solar panels. But he doesn’t clarify (and likely doesn’t know) that First solar provides panels for massive solar farms, not for households. It is a different segment of the market, and bringing in that company as an example to try to say the tariffs won’t hurt the industry is hugely misleading. Again, the tens of thousands of jobs that are expected to be lost are in the small-scale installation segment of the market.
The second MSNBC reference I’ve seen to the tariffs was pushed to the end of a chat between host Katy Tur and reporter Kristen Welker that was focused on the Richard Mueller investigation. This segment included a statement from Donald Trump that’s just plain false. He claims that they are bringing jobs back to the US for the first time in years, or decades even. That’s a lie, or at the very best misleading. “Solar installer” has been one of the fastest growing jobs in the US in recent years. Solar manufacturing has also grown, but not on the super low cost segment of the market — where countries like China excel. Either way, these solar jobs weren’t here that long ago. As I’ve noted a few times, the new solar tariffs will protect a small number of US solar manufacturing jobs at the expense of far more solar installation jobs that were created during Obama’s two terms, tens of thousands of which are now expected to be lost. To claim that you are bringing jobs back when the net effect is a loss in jobs is just a BS talking point — even if Donald Trump may actually believe what he is saying. Instead of adding such comments, Kristen Welker misled viewers further by repeating Trump’s claim of what the tariffs are about — “creating American jobs.” Yet again, even the “left-wing media” repeated an incorrect talking point rather than correcting it.
Should major media networks have clean energy experts on hand to respond to such stories? Me thinks yeah.