Solar Import Tariff: Pain Without Benefit

By Roy Morrison, whose  latest book is Sustainability Sutra (2017, Select books NY). He is working on dual-cropping installations in New England and NY

The new 30% import tariff just imposed on imported solar panels and solar cells is a protective tariff without benefit.

It will not revive the declining U.S. silicon solar cell industry. It will harm U.S. workers in factories manufacturing solar panels using imported solar cells. It will hurt the rapidly expanding industry, slowing down the rapidly growing adoption of solar across the U.S.economy and costing jobs. It will slow the reduction of green house gases and the replacement of coal and natural gas plants with cheaper, zero pollution energy.

In Jacksonville, Florida the city council has just voted for a $23 million dollar subsidy for Chinese company Jinko Solar to build an 800 worker modular production plant which itself will be subject to the tariff on solar cells. Similarly, the tariff will affect the Tesla giga-factory in Buffalo that uses imported cells.

The tariff will slow, but not stop, the expansion of U.S. solar. According to Green Tech Media there will be an 11% net reduction of solar installations over the next five years. This means the installation of 61.3 gigawatts instead of a projected 68.9 gigawatts, a 7.6 gigawatt shortfall. That’s the bad news, if the projection is correct.

7.6 gigawatts of solar if it displaced fossil fuel generation would save, according to the EIA, 1.64 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour, or 7.3 million tons of carbon dioxide per year based on New England solar production per megawatt. That’s the projected ecological consequence of the solar tax.

The good news is that solar is now big and rapidly growing. 61.3 megawatts of new solar in next five years is equal to the capacity of 61 one thousand megawatt nuclear plants. Total U.S.nuclear capacity is 99 gigawatts and declining as nuke plants shut down, unable to compete while solar rises.

The 30% tariff on cells or modules is scheduled to decline by 5% a year to 15% in 2021, the last year of the tariff. The first 2.5 gigawatts of imports are exempt, as will be a blend of other specialized modules that are applying for exemption from the tariff as are a number of developing nation producers limited to a total of 9% of imports.

What does this all mean on the ground for solar installations? A 30% module tariff means about a ten cent per watt increase in solar costs. Average residential solar cost, according to NREL (National Resource Energy Laboratory), in 2017 was $2.80 a watt installed, a 3.6 percent increase in 2018 that will decline to 1.8 percent for typical 5-6 kilowatt systems.

For utility scale solar, huge installations above 10 megawatts or 10,000 kilowatts, the price in 2017 was $1.11/watt. Here, a ten cents a watt increase means a 9 percent increase, declining to 4.5% increase.
The negative effects of the tariff are likely to be felt most strongly in emerging PV markets in Southern and other States with limited financial support and market rules for solar.

Mitigating Possibilities

Solar in recent years has been characterized by plunging costs, improved efficiency, and technological innovation. Globally, wind and solar are now competitive in more than thirty countries with fossil fuels without subsidies and represents “an outright compelling investment opportunity with long-term, stable, inflation-protected returns,” according to Michael Drexler, Head of Long Term Investing, Infrastructure and Development at the World Economic Forum. The judgement of big capital.

Current responses to utility scale RFPs for solar have been an astounding less than two cents per kilowatt hour. This is stunning for a zero fuel, zero pollution low maintenance cost energy fuel. Fossil fuels and nukes simply won’t be able to compete.

In addition, there is ongoing technical innovation in all areas of renewable energy and energy efficiency, as well new applications of renewables. It is likely, for example, that new types of solar cells will replace silicon as material of choice such as using perovskite crystals, and further advances in thin film technology.

Giant offshore wind machines can now float and be anchored to the sea floor in deeper water expanding the available off-shore wind resource. A legion of new innovative renewable projects are moving forward. I am working on a pilot installation for a new Swiss design for a megawatt scale vertical axis wind turbine that is quiet, minimizes or eliminates bat and bird kills, minimizes rotor shade, has a small footprint.

As a solar developer, I am developing dual-cropping PV systems on working farms that allow PV on poles or tables, at four foot intervals, to be installed in pasture or fields without significantly reducing agricultural productivity. This system was developed by work in test plots by Prof, Stephen Herbert of the Stockbridge Institute with contractor James Marley.

The market consequences of the tariff may also lead to price reductions by Chinese suppliers, and help accelerate the reduction in cost by racking companies, inverter manufacturers, and in PV installation techniques. For example, Spice Solar, now offers solar panels integrated with racking that can be connected to the roof quickly with a few roof anchors, shipped recently at .60 per watt, a significant price reduction. The tariff may also mean foreign companies, as Jinko did in Jacksonville, building American based factories.

Tariff or not, now’s the time for us all to embrace the economic, ecological and social benefits of building a secure and prosperous efficient renewable energy future. Our pursuit of ecological economic growth and our democratic action on all levels will shape the emergence of a renewable energy future and our escape from ecological calamity by making economic growth mean ecological improvement and building step by step a prosperous ecological civilization.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    The good news is that solar is now big and rapidly growing. 61.3 megawatts of new solar in next five years is equal to the capacity of 61 one thousand megawatt nuclear plants. Total U.S.nuclear capacity is 99 gigawatts and declining as nuke plants shut down, unable to compete while solar rises.

    While I agree entirely with the thrust of the article, I really hate to see the sort of misleading figures given such as this – the arguments for solar power are strong enough without being misleading.

    Solar in the US has a capacity factor (i.e. the average amount of power generated over a given period of time) of around 25%. Nuclear, for all its faults, has a capacity factor around 90%. There are other factors at play, such as that in hot parts of the US solar produces its max output to coincide with peak demand (the midday peak as everyone puts on their air con), but you can’t get away from the reality that you need about 4 times as much installed solar as nuclear to make a meaningful comparison. So 60GW of installed solar is roughly equivalent to about 15 1GW nuclear generators, or maybe 20 or so similar sized coal plants.

    I assume also, btw, that 61.3 megawatts above should read 61.3 gigawatts.

    1. The Rev Kev

      I have no doubt that what you write is true but, admitting to knowing little about the subject, may I offer a rejoinder? I think that a problem here is modern economics in that when working out costs and benefits, that only a selected number of factors are captured when assessing a product or an industry. Thus, as an example, the price of a new model of car can be worked out to the cent but that does not capture all the associated costs such as the pollutants that that those cars will kick out over their lifetime and the costs that will be born by that community. Such costs are externalized. To get back to the immediate topic, when things go south with solar panels, the cost is probably always immediate and local which any insurance company will pay out with their pocket change.
      However, when things go south with a nuclear reactor, the costs can be catastrophic, deadly and have its effects measured in centuries. I do not know if this is a rule but I have read of several nuclear reactors whose operators will only pay so much in case of a catastrophe but after a point, the government is committed to pick up the rest – whatever the costs. To put a fine point on it, the economics of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant drastically altered after 11th March 2011. Before then, it’s economics were probably little different from the other 450-odd reactors around the world. After that date, well, last I heard the figure for this ongoing disaster has been reckoned at $188 billion but to quote an Australian film – “Tell ’em they’re dreaming!”.

      1. Chris

        Thank you PK and RK, good points.

        Bottom line is it’s a clever decision to assist already entrenched donors – the fossil fuel industry, whatever the costs to the consumer and the environment. No other reason for it.

        As for nuclear, have a look at the location of the nuke plants in the US. Some, eg Pilgrim are very vulnerable to a natural disaster, or one that is man made.

        We are already seeing, although it is very opaque due to the non reporting on it, the terrible aftermath of Fukushima (good name that one btw). And not just to Japan.

        There is no safe level of radiation.

        1. knowbuddhau

          I remember reading a Department of Energy document, relating to Yucca Mountain, that blandly stated they planned on keeping wastes contained for 50,000 years. Fifty. Thousand. Years.

          How much is that going to cost? What’s the per kwh rate when we add that in? How much waste does each reactor produce over its often overextended lifetime, how long will that need babysitting, and again, how much is that going to cost?

          Who in their right mind thinks such a feat even possible, let alone feasible?

          That’s when you know, it’s not about doing the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons. You know, what a legit society does. No, it’s all about the money.

          “Damn the environment, more power now!” is no way to live. And yet haven’t we been doing just that? I’d like to think AGW will be enough to provoke a thorough rethink. I really would.

      2. PlutoniumKun

        As a broader point, you are absolutely correct. Leaving to one side the very difficult side of comparing costs, solar and wind decentralised power networks have a very significant advantage in a rapidly changing climate that they provide an inherently more resilient form of power. When the earthquake/tsunami hit Japan, the wind power turbines kept operating while the conventional thermal plants shut down. It would take one hell of a natural or human caused disaster to seriously disrupt a power system largely based on solar and wind with hydro or other forms of storage – the same can’t be said of almost all alternatives. The cost of course is that it simply doesn’t produce the sort of ‘on demand’ and relatively cheap and plentiful power everyone is used to.

        The financial cost is of course a notorioiusly difficult topic. All power sources have ‘costs’ over and above the direct capital and running costs of the power plants. For one thing, centralised systems and decentralised systems need different types of distribution networks (this is one reason why small scale solar and hydro makes so much economic sense in countries with poor existing electricity networks), and then there are the accounting difficulties in calculating risk factors, long term clean-ups, indirect pollution, loss of land, etc. This is why you really need to delve very deep into the numbers to work out how much each power system really costs us in the long term.

        But it must be said that the trends have been massively favourable to solar and wind over the past decade. The drop in costs has been remarkable* (but then again, so have the drop in costs for fracking), and there is no doubt that in most situations, renewables are now at the very least competitive in ‘honest’ accounting terms, if not objectively speaking the cheapest.

        This, of course, is why the fossil fuel industry is now relying on politicians to allow them to hack out the last few years of remaining profits for them, rather than actually investing in their products.

        *just to give one example, the much admired and frequently cited 2009 book ‘Renewable Energy: Without the Hot Air’ by the late David MacKay predicted that photoelectric would be competitive with coal and nuclear around 2040. Yet photoelectric costs were hitting parity in many countries by around 2015, and are still going down.

        1. Chris

          Thanks PK, the uptake by households and business in Australia of solar has been huge – over 25 per cent of houses have some solar capacity. This has been driven by large increases in power for consumers, not least driven by the privatisation of power stations and utility companies – and the gouging by companies like Santos who sell LNG domestically at much higher prices than they sell to overseas countries.

          What this means is that the fixed cost of the infrastructure is being borne by the remaining people who only rely on the grid as we are only charged for what we use, there are only small fixed charges on the bill.

          Earlier feed in tariffs were overly generous, not so now, but the costs are so low now that I can put 6KW on my roof (and the sun shines here a lot) for around $6k to $9k depending on the quality. Only wish I had the $s…

        2. The Rev Kev

          You won’t find me disagreeing with anything that you said here. I think that you have summed the situation up fairly well. I have to admit to being ambiguous about the whole energy situation myself. My own prejudice is to go with anything that is cheap, resilient and sustainable. Of course in the real world, you only get to chooses two of those three. For over two centuries we have lived in an economy that has always been expanding – and using a greater amount of natural resources to do do – but I do not think that this will still be true before the end of the century so I personally go for power generation that uses equipment that does not depend on a high-tech infrastructure to support and maintain it. Just a personal prejudice mind you.

        3. Grumpy Engineer

          There is no doubt that in most situations, renewables are now at the very least competitive in ‘honest’ accounting terms, if not objectively speaking the cheapest.

          Most situations? Hardly. Renewables can perform very nicely on sunny and windy days, but how to you keep the lights on (and more importantly, the heat pumps running) on a calm winter night? Especially in northern latititudes. If you can’t, people freeze to death.

          I feel like “the Great Renewable Party Pooper” every time I bring this up, but the grid has to run pretty much 24/7/365. Not just when the wind and sunlight conditions are favorable. This means energy storage. LOTS of it. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 100 to 500 TWh for the US alone, and the largest battery in the country clocks in at a mere 125 MWh:

          Even if the lower 100 TWh energy storage estimate is closer to correct, we’ll need 800,000 of these 125 MWh stations. That’s one for every 400 people in the country. Does that sound even remotely feasible or affordable? Are there even enough lithium and cobalt resources on the planet to make all of these batteries? Yves and team have written about the limits of battery production before, and that’s just for the automotive market where the energy storage needs are more modest:

          Might some other energy storage technology become a more attractive option? Perhaps. But right now everybody’s building lithium-ion stations, even if they are so tiny. There’s undoubtedly a reason for that.

          1. Grumpy Engineer

            Can a renewables-based grid keep the lights on even during a month like this?

            During December of 2017…
            Brussels, Belgium saw 10 hours, 31 minutes of sunlight.
            Lille, France saw 2 hours, 41 minutes.
            Moscow, Russia saw ZERO hours, 6 minutes.

            Most of Europe was under cloud cover for the bulk of December. But the lights and the heat had to stay on regardless. Lots of fossil fuels were burned to make this happen.

    2. L

      One must also distinguish between installed or purchased megawatts and functioning megawatts. Many of the biggest figures that I have seen report figures on solar farms that are either still under construction or are not yet being fully utilized. With any generation capacity there is a lag between the time it is built, the time it is actually hooked up (and it is not clear that all of these big ticket installations are fully connected) and the time when it makes a difference. From what I can tell many of the more glowing numbers are the first time point, not the last.

    3. fajensen

      Solar in the US has a capacity factor (i.e. the average amount of power generated over a given period of time) of around 25%

      True – But – That is a good example on how our Algorithm’s have a tendency to fixating the past and creating outcomes irrelevant to the future we want to create :)

      The metrics, quality factors, KPI’s, or whatever we call them, are based on a different power system with large central units, centralised production planning and power flowing only from the top down to consumers than the power system we will need to build when consumers also can be generators, there is no central planning and very few large units – because these units are increasingly uneconomical to have.

      Managing and engineering the transition from Soviet-style organisation of electrical production to a flexible, self-managing, resilient and decentralised grid is definitely going to be a good career path. It will take 1-2 decades.

      But it is happening now, the cost of renewable energy and especially the investments structure – not “much” money required per project, project delivery before the budget assumptions are undercut by ever-changing reality – drives pretty much all new investments in the direction of “smart”-grids and renewables. This increased activity drives cost of solar cells and windmills down by about 20% per doubling of the production and we have a self-reinforcing, exponential, cykle going.

      Those flint-eyed capitalists are simply no longer happy with investing in a nuclear / coal-fired power plant, raising billions early up front and a 5-15 years delivery time in a rapidly changing world, where they might not even get to switch the ting On because legislations changed during the project, when there are much less risky, nimbler, alternatives.

      The engineers and system designers will adapt the grid to the load structure, exactly like they did before.

  2. Brianm

    The framing of this not complete. This not just a penalty on solar, it is in effect another subsidy to suppliers of fossil fuels. Framed that way you can why this government has enacted it.

    1. rd

      For the Trump Administration, this is a feature, not a bug. A major campaign platform was to increase coal, oil, and gas production. He is delivering what he promised his base.

  3. Thomas A Williams

    Interesting how restarting the manufacturing base was omitted from the article. The knock on effects should be factored in such as ancillary business, increased US employment, increased worker expertise…..On this site, we’re familiar with the subject so I won’t belabor the point.

    With such a a one sided presentation, I have to wonder if there’s a deeper agenda here; anti-Trump, pro-globalization?? At a minimum it is dismissive of blue collar Americans

    1. Thuto

      I’m sympathetic to your viewpoint, and to some degree at least, Trump sticking it to the globalists by “putting America first”. The problem comes when other countries are also expected to put America first (read put American corporations first), even unto the death of their own local industries, providing unfettered access to their own markets at the insistence of the US even as America barricades its own markets with numerous protectionist measures. I should know, I live in a country that has fallen prey to exactly such scheming by the US and would love to see consistency replace hypocrisy in the form of America’s considerable global influence being used to protect local industries in (especially) developing countries the same way it (allegedly) “protects” weaker countries against [Russian, Chinese, Iranian, DPRK] “aggression”.

      1. a different chris

        >other countries are also expected to put America first

        In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be a problem. They just need to say: “No”. Of course in the world we live in, the people who are supposed to say “no” actually are made quite wealthy by saying “yes”, and anybody who wants political power that would say “no” is lucky not to be called a terrorist and jailed. The chances of actually getting political power, at least before the country is gutted, is about zero.

  4. Scott

    I was talking to people with experience developing power projects last week. They told me that there were already two policies under Trump that had a big impact on solar and wind development. The first was the tax law. Many renewable energy projects use something called tax equity financing and with the lower corporate tax rates, many traditional investors (banks and insurance companies) may be less likely to invest, especially in smaller projects. At the very least, it is slowing down as the organizations examine its impact. The second is rising interest rates, which have a large impact on solar projects.

    My guess is that the combination of these factors along with the tariffs will raise the cost of solar development, but most of the blame will be pushed onto the tariffs.

  5. Louis Fyne

    –It will not revive the declining U.S. silicon solar cell industry. —

    Why? Not trolling. Genuinely ignorant to the economics of panels. US, Korea, Taiwan, Japan support semiconductor production. Why not solar?

    1. PlutoniumKun

      If the intention of the tarrifs was to develop a US solar industry, then it would have applied first to panels, with a few years time lag to solar cells and other componentry to allow time for the industry to invest in the necessary capacity. But thats not the intention, its a signal that Trump wants to strangle the industry, so it will dissuade investment.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        I mentioned this on the 23rd:

        From Trump’s Tariffs… (Bloomberg):

        Some Chinese solar companies had already been preparing for the news, with the prospect of tariffs prompting Longi Green Energy Technology Co. to consider building factories in the U.S.

        There are lots of places in the US to build those factories.

        The other consideration is pent-up demand.

        It may lag, as it takes time to build up the necessary capacity, but once completed, it will be a wide open market for the first new domestic mass-provider.

  6. a different chris

    *I* am not supporting this argument, but consider this: Since the future is solar/wind, then tariffs at this still-early stage ensures that the technology will be developed here as well as in the Far East.

    I suspect there is one or two more big breakthroughs, partially in efficiency, largely in the replacement of rare materials with stuff laying around on the ground. Might be good if these breakthroughs don’t entirely happen offshore.

    1. jawbone

      Or, given Trump’s negative attitude toward anything aimed at slowing CO2 increases, possibly Trump is delighted to have any excuse to slow down solar installations.

      Given he’s willing to let his appointees destroy most regulations which try to keep the air and water clean, why wouldn’t he love killing off some green industry jobs?

      I agree it would be good for US industries to fund good, basic research, but that has not been how US businesses have been putting their monies. Will this change things for the better? Hhhmm…

      1. RMO

        I’m guessing you nailed it there. Also, hating anything green or even “green” seems to be mandatory for a Republican politician now and the tariffs make it possible for him to claim he’s really doing something to make good on his campaign promises.

        If the goal was to build up U.S. solar power manufacturing and generation direct subsidies, public investment in publicly owned factories and changes to regulations, rates and taxes would work better.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Public investment in public solar-harvesting technology would require a Bernie-type President and a majority-Bernie-type House and Senate . . . to get that kind of Renewer Deal policy.

          That would have been no likelier under a Pres Clinton than under a Pres Trump.

          It just goes to show why a total Berniefication of the office-holder system and people is a minimum survival requirement.

  7. Pespi

    Maybe it will divert Chinese solar to other slow adopting markets. The whole world needs to be on largely sustainable grids if we want there to be a world. That’s the only silver lining I see.

  8. Gary

    A solar cell is not the only method to harvest the sun. In the southern regions, photovoltaic cells are less efficient due to heat. In Spain, they build football sized concaved focal reflectors from cement that super heats a single point to boil water and turn generators. This is leveraging existing technology to generate power. After all, nuclear power plants are giant tea kettles. Another way would be to use mirrors to heat some sort of Freon to spin a turbine. Take “markets” out of the formula and the solutions can be found.
    A water heater can be made from the tanks of old water heaters and cast off florescent tubes. You can dry your clothing and sheet on wires stretched outside in the sun. It’s not alien technology.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      There are already five Concentrated Solar Power Plants in the US – Ivanpah in California is the largest. CSP has fallen behind photovoltaics in popularity with developers for simple economic reasons – photovoltaic arrays are simply cheaper now and have fewer environmental issues and locational constraints.

    2. Adam Eran

      I believe that Spanish plant also heated salt to a molten state, so it could supply continuous power even when the sun was not shining…

      1. PlutoniumKun

        All CSP plants can store power in the form of steam or hot oil or molten salt to some extent, although molten salt is easier to store. But the latter also requires extreme heat to melt, so they work best as a complement to existing fossil fuel stations – I believe the Italians have one linked to an older gas powered plant.

        1. animalogic

          Here in Australia hydro power is being optimistically studied. The basic idea is to use existing river systems. During the day water runs down through a generator, putting electricity into the grid and into batteries. At night the batteries enter the grid and pump the water back up for the morning. I can’t recall whether there was s solar \ wind component, however I do generally recall that the economics and resources for such a system were extremely promising.

    3. Anon

      Concentrated solar power plants (CSP) not only are technologically more complex (to design and operate) they have the problem of power distribution.

      Roof-top solar (with a reasonable battery bank) can provide a confident source of power despite regional/national calamity.

  9. Synoia

    As a solar developer, I am developing dual-cropping PV systems on working farms that allow PV on poles or tables, at four foot intervals, to be installed in pasture or fields without significantly reducing agricultural productivity.

    Very Mooving :-).

    How are the cables run? Overhead? If so at what height.

    I cannot conceive of burying cables on a farm – ploughs are no friend of cables.

  10. Matthew Saroff`

    The statement, “It will not revive the declining U.S. silicon solar cell industry,” is a statement of faith, and not a fact as blithely presented, and runs counter to economic theory.

    Even the international labor arbitrage favoring freshwater economists would admit that it would provide a boost to solar cell manufacturers. What they would also say is that it is not worth the knock on effects make this a fools choice.

    The whole energy industry is heavily subsidized in one way or another, renewables even more so, and they are an integral part of the business..

    When push comes to shove, the question is not whether to subsidize, but who to subsidize.

    In that case, I would argue for subsidizing core manufacturing competencies, because once you lose those, and you just do assembly and installation, you lose the ability to design assemblies and installation.

    It’s like what happened with Dell in the 90s and 00s:
    Short version:
    * Once manufacturing is outsourced, process-engineering expertise can’t be maintained, since it depends on daily interactions with manufacturing.

    * Without process-engineering capabilities, companies find it increasingly difficult to conduct advanced research on next-generation process technologies.

    * Without the ability to develop such new processes, they find they can no longer develop new products.

    * In the long term, then, an economy that lacks an infrastructure for advanced process engineering and manufacturing will lose its ability to innovate.

  11. Beri

    Carbon reduction?

    Does that into account the production of solar cells here and in China along the entire chain of production from acquiring raw materials, transportation, production, shipping, assembly, more shipping, and final installation? As well as storage and disposal of waste material generated by production.

    Initial costs of installation does cost. In terms money and pollution.

    It would be good to have the costs of an installation for solar power plant where the energy produced is more than enough to power production of solar cells.

    If production still uses more energy than produced? Production is inefficient and still polluting with CO2 emissions. Never mind the toxic chemicals used in production.

  12. Tomonthebeach

    This event truly begs the question of who the hell recommends these stupid policies to POTUS.

    Maybe it is that Law School slacker Trump recently hired as deputy COS at the WH ONDCP – you know, the one whose resume has one entry – fired from first job for no showing up to work. He certainly seems sufficiently incompetent to advise this sort of policy.

    But seriously, who stands to gain from such an obviously short-sighted policy? Big Oil? Coal? …..

  13. Fastball

    I almost never take this tack, but has anyone thought of the national security implications of either outsourcing or allowing certain industries to completely die in the United States?

    I would state that several things legitimately fall under this umbrella. Solar cell manufacture being one (as part of “energy” in general). If we actually can’t manufacture solar cells in this country, we risk being held hostage by countries who can. It’s a small risk, as there are other kinds of renewable energy production.

    It’s similar to the dilemma faced by outsourcing silicon chip production overseas. If our military machines are filled to the brim by cheap Chinese chips, how is the manufacture of those military machines NOT ultimately controlled elsewhere?

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