By Bob Keefe
We all want to buy American.
But, President Trump’s decision Monday to impose a massive 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels will cause far more harm than good – for jobs, for our environment and for America’s ability to lead on clean energy.
The facts are simple.
Nearly 374,000 Americans now work in full or part-time jobs the solar industry. The vast majority of them work in installation, project design and management, sales and related fields. Only about 8,000 work in manufacturing.
The trade group Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) estimates that a 30 percent tariff on imported panels would kill more than 88,000 good-paying jobs in the solar industry, just to satisfy the legal complaints of two solar panel manufacturing companies that together employ about 400 people. Putting a tariff on imported solar panels right now is like putting the fastest-growing position in America – solar technician – on the bench, just to get a five-yard penalty on the other team.
Like it or not, the majority of solar panels are manufactured overseas, just like the majority of our computers, cellphones, clothes and other goods are manufactured overseas. Imagine suddenly levying a 30 percent fee on Apple or Verizon just because their phones and laptops are made (and assembled) in Asia. Doing so would drive up consumer costs, hurt sales and threaten jobs here in America.
Nevermind that the two solar panel companies that asked the U.S. International Trade Commission for tariffs on cheaper foreign-made panels are actually owned by foreign companies. Suniva is majority owned by a Hong Kong company (that opposes tariffs), while SolarWorld is a subsidiary of a German conglomerate. Suniva declared bankruptcy last year; SolarWorld’s parent has said it is technically insolvent, according to SEIA.
To be sure, levying tariffs on foreign solar panels is an easy way for President Trump to appeal to his base. It’s also another way the Trump administration can continue its unfortunate practice of propping up the coal and petroleum industries while throwing up roadblocks for clean energy and the more than 3 million Americans who now work in renewable energy, energy efficiency and other clean energy fields.
Solar companies and their employees are bracing for the pain that will follow President Trump’s decision.
"The possibility of tariffs on foreign solar panels is a huge weight hanging over our heads,” said Mark Bortman, founder of Exact Solar in Pennsylvania. “The uncertainty has already forced us to delay hiring and expansion plans. If tariffs or quotas are imposed, layoffs and contractions are a real possibility.”
Whitney Painter, owner of Buglet Solar Electric based in Golden, Col., agrees.
“Solar is the cheapest and fastest-growing energy source on the planet, and one of the top sectors of job growth in the US,” she said. “A solar tariff would cause solar panel prices to spike domestically, and hurt my solar business in Colorado, as it would many other solar businesses across the country. American interests will not be served by using tariffs to decimate our solar industry.”
It’s not just solar companies and entrepreneurs who realize a tariff is a bad idea. More than 350 business owners, investors and other professionals across all industries recently signed this letter from E2 asking President Trump not to hurt our economy and our environment with a solar tariff.
American business leaders understand that jacking up the price of solar panels with a tariff would kill jobs and hurt our economy. They know it means consumers would be forced to remain shackled to electricity from coal or gas or pay a lot more for clean, renewable energy from the sun. They know it would hurt innovation in the energy industry.
They also know that tripping up clean energy growth with something as silly as a solar panel tariff would hurt our environment. One average-sized residential solar power system can reduce carbon pollution by an estimated 200,000 pounds over 25 years. That’s the equivalent of planting more than 2,300 trees or reducing the equivalent C02 emissions from burning nearly 100,000 pounds of coal.
President Trump says he cares a lot about creating jobs and driving economic growth. Levying tariffs that will slam the brakes on the fastest-growing jobs in America isn’t going to get it done.
Bob Keefe is executive director of E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs) a national, nonpartisan group of business owners, investors and others who advocate for policies that are good for the economy and good for the environment. E2 members have founded or funded more than 2,500 companies, created more than 600,000 jobs and collectively control about $100 billion in venture and private equity capital.