While trade is often a bone of contention between the United States and China, this week’s visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping threw the spotlight on one subset of that battle that could have far-reaching effects well in excess of the raw dollar amounts at stake.
At issue is a complaint filed by a solar industry trade group, the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, or CASM, asking that the US government impose tariffs on Chinese solar panels. CASM wants the duties for what it claims are unfair subsidies by China that make Chinese solar products substantially cheaper than those offered by many US competitors.
Language in President Obama’s State of the Union, along with comments made during Xi’s visit, would seem to indicate that the federal government is set to weigh in on the side of US solar energy companies in this brewing trade war, and so make a stand for domestic green energy manufacturing and good-paying American jobs.
It seems like a political slam-dunk. The president, after all, campaigned in 2008 on the promise of a growing alternative energy sector, and protecting jobs from being off-shored appears to be the perfect play at a time when unemployment is still unacceptably high. But the reality is, to put it in diplomatic speak, more nuanced.
First, that solar trade group, the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, claims to represent seven solar manufacturers, but the only company publicly identified as a CASM member is SolarWorld. SolarWorld is actually not a US company, but a German one, though it does employ about 1,000 at its Hillsboro, Oregon factory.
And even that number is nuanced. SolarWorld is considered the largest producer of solar panels in the US, and so it is used as a sort of case study in this trade dispute. Several stories on the topic note that SolarWorld shuttered its Camarillo, California plant, and with it went 100 jobs. The implication is that Chinese pricing caused the California closure, but a quick step through the Google looking glass will reveal that SolarWorld moved all its manufacturing to Oregon after that state offered it millions of dollars in tax breaks.
There is nothing inherently wrong with what Oregon did (unless you are one of the newly unemployed in California), but it should be part of the discussion. Not all jobs lost are part of the international trade war; in a low-growth economy, state governments are increasingly generous with the private sector as they try to secure precious jobs.
And not all “American” solar manufacturers actually do their manufacturing in America. SunPower, a San Jose-based solar company that has said it is “neutral” in this trade row, manufactures most of its solar panels in the Philippines.
Measuring the US solar sector by manufacturing alone is also a faulty yardstick. A majority of domestic solar-sector jobs–52%–are actually in installation. . . and there’s the rub. . . well, a rub. . . potentially, a really big rub.
Oregon’s two Democratic Senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, are obviously quick to jump in on the side of a company that provides their state with 1,000 jobs (and solar manufacturing across all companies might provide Oregonians with something like twice that number). US Representatives, like Democrats Jackie Speier, Barbara Lee and Pete Stark, who have solar startups in their California districts, have also called for the federal government to investigate Chinese trade practices.
The Department of Commerce is scheduled to rule on CASM’s complaint by March 5, but if it takes what looks like the politically smoother path and sides with SolarWorld and their invisible friends, the next step would be for the US to impose tariffs on Chinese-made solar components, thus halting the rapid downward trend in prices for solar panels, and quite possibly driving prices up again here in the United States.
And that could actually spell big problems for America’s solar sector. Though it is hard to find an “expert” without some vested interest in some side of this dispute, there seems to be consensus that the recent substantial drops in the price of solar equipment have spurred a vast expansion in the numbers of homes, schools, businesses and government buildings that have installed solar cells to meet some or all of their electric power needs. Those installations, as noted above, mean jobs, and they also mean energy savings–both immediate and sustainable–for both individuals and municipalities. And while there are tax breaks for retrofitting buildings with solar panels, those breaks are mostly available for private buildings (not public schools and municipal buildings, where alternative energy could make a quick and substantial impact), and the savings do not make up for the price difference between Chinese- and American-manufactured products. The tax breaks are also scheduled to expire in 2016.
And there’s a multiplier effect that makes the basic savings seem small in comparison. Every home, hospital or school using solar power is that much demand that is not being placed on the conventional electrical grid. Depending on the region, that means less demand for coal-, gas, or nuclear-powered generation. And that means less demand for disappearing resources and less need to build costly, new power plants. It could also mean lower costs to society in the form of fewer pollution- and radiation-related health problems.
Then there is the obvious metric: Carbon-based power generation is guaranteed to grow more expensive as time marches on; the same has proven true for nuclear power. Solar prices are on a steady downward path, and solar power, if allowed to grow in market share, will continue to grow cheaper and more competitive.
And competition is what this is all supposed to be about, right? CASM has accused China of unfair trade practices that make it impossible for American manufacturers to compete. Proponents of 19th and 20th Century power-generating technologies love to remind advocates of alternative energy that fossil and fissile fuels are just “more competitive.” All things being equal. . . the market will decide. . . if there is a level playing field. . . or so the argument goes.
Fair enough, let’s look at that playing field.
Right now, without trying to estimate any possible solar tariffs, the alternative energy sector does get some help. According to a study from the Environmental Law Institute, renewables received $29 billion in federal subsidies from 2002 to 2008. Remove ethanol form that number, and you are down to $12.2 billion.
But during that same period, fossil fuel production received $72.5 billion in subsidies. That number excludes general energy sector subsidies–and it also excludes nuclear. The amount that nuclear receives is harder to calculate in the aggregate–loan guarantees are just guarantees until there is a default, and the Price-Anderson indemnity act has a value, but quantifiable payouts only come with disasters–but it is believed that for the second half of the 20th Century, nuclear consumed 10 percent of all US subsidies to the energy sector, something well in excess of $100 billion since the industry’s start.
But the numbers for fossil fuel and nuclear power are ridiculously low-ball. Not included there, what the federal government has to spend to clean up a polluted river or an oil spill in the gulf; nor does it include what the US has and will have to spend on behalf of the nuclear industry to transport and store its dangerous radioactive waste for as far forward as anyone can imagine.
Still, a “level playing field” sounds inherently fair, so why should domestic solar manufacturing have to suffer for the sins of legacy energy production?
Indeed. Wouldn’t it be amazingly convenient for gas producers or nuclear power concerns if the downward move in solar panel prices were arrested by a US tariff?
Instead, what if the federal government leveled that playing field by increasing its subsidies to domestic solar production?
Do more subsidies somehow sound too extravagant in these times of supposedly tight budgets? OK, then maybe the gas industry should be made to pick up the tab for trucking in fresh water to communities that have had their natural water supplies poisoned by hydro-fracking. Maybe the oil industry would like to pay to register its offshore rigs in the United States when they are drilling in US waters. Or maybe the nuclear industry should be required to find their financing without federal loan guarantees.
That last point is of special interest here. Take, for example, the two Chinese companies said to be providing the most competition for US solar manufacturers. According to SolarWorld representatives, “Trina Solar received a $4.4 billion loan from the China Development Bank, and Jinko Solar got a $7.6 billion loan from the Bank of China.” As regular readers of this space probably recognize, both of those figures are eclipsed by the $8.3 billion loan guarantee given by the Obama administration to the Southern Company for two recently approved nuclear reactors in Georgia.
So, fair is fair, level that playing field, but level it all over. If the US wants to move to make its solar companies more competitive with Chinese manufacturers, then make other energy sectors have to compete on similar terms. Rather than protect entrenched, disappearing, dangerous and dirty sources with duties that will render the entire solar sector less competitive, grant solar and other promising renewable alternatives the same level of help the US has habitually handed to fossil and fissile fuels. Rather than constrain domestic job growth by making solar power more expensive, pave the way for more good jobs with greater subsidies for both solar manufacturers and consumers. Rather than blow current and future resources on fuels that will only grow more expensive, spend now to expand the contribution of energy that continues to improve its cost-to-kilowatt ratio. Rather than use taxpayer dollars to pay for more pollution, more global warming, more cleanups and more adverse health outcomes, invest in clean, green technologies that not only pay immediate dividends but also have the potential to place America at the forefront of the next economic revolution.
If the Commerce Department does move toward imposing tariffs on Chinese solar manufacturers, the Obama administration and others in the government–as well as parts of the solar industry here–will now doubt call it a move on behalf of American manufacturing and the American worker. But will it be a move on behalf of America? The government might very well need to get involved to further the growth of this renewable energy sector, but if they do, manufacturers, workers and consumers should all insist that the intervention is done in a way that is truly in the public interest.