Friday, January 19, 2018

Should the US Energy Future Depend on Cheap Solar Imports?

The pending administration decision on whether to impose a tariff or other fee on US imports of solar equipment from China raises serious concerns. The right choice in this case is less obvious than suggested by the jobs and free-trade arguments from the main US solar trade association (SEIA) or the Wall St. Journal's editorial page. Solar power generates less than 2% of US electricity today. However, if it is to grow as experts forecast and advocates claim is essential, then considerations such as long-term energy security can't be ignored, while near-term job losses from a new tariff would be more than offset by subsequent growth.

Last October the US International Trade Commission issued its recommendations in favor of the complaint by two US manufacturers of solar panel components. I usually favor low tariffs and open access, especially when the markets in question are functioning smoothly and the principal impacts from trade are the result of "comparative advantage" in production or extraction between countries. However, there is little about the market for solar equipment, including the photovoltaic (PV) cells and modules at issue here, that qualifies as free.

The production and deployment of solar energy hardware has depended since its inception, and from one end of its value chain to the other, on significant government interventions. In the case of China-based PV manufacturing, these have included low-interest government loans, preferential access to land, and minimal environmental regulations. China-based PV manufacturers were also able to take advantage of extravagantly generous European solar subsidies in the 2000s to scale up their output, drive down their costs, and ultimately send much of the EU's solar manufacturing industry into bankruptcy.

On the US end, both solar manufacturing and deployment (installation) have benefited greatly from federal tax credits, cash grants from the US Treasury, and a web of state quotas for aggressively increasing utilization of renewable energy sources. Justified on grounds of energy security, "green jobs", and climate change mitigation, these measures have strongly promoted solar power and  delivered an extraordinary 68% compound annual growth rate in US solar installations since 2006. On a per-unit-of-energy basis, these supports are also at least an order of magnitude more valuable to the solar industry than the federal tax benefits received by the oil and gas industry.

One of the factors that makes this decision so difficult and politically sensitive is that a whole industry has apparently grown up around cheap solar imports, to the point that the main solar benefit to the US economy today is from installation, not manufacturing. US companies and their employees build solar panel racks and other "balance of system" gear, finance rooftop and other solar projects, and construct these installations.

These companies could be at risk of losing business and shedding jobs, if a large tariff were imposed on imported solar cells, modules and panels. Those impacts might be less than feared, though, because the cost of the actual sunlight-converting PV hardware now makes up less than a third of total solar project costs. In other words, a tariff that doubled effective PV cost would drive up total solar costs to a much smaller degree, and least of all for residential solar, which has the highest total costs per kilowatt.

There's another important aspect of this debate that hasn't received much attention. If solar power is as important to our future energy diet as many think, then it should be no more desirable to become heavily reliant on China for our supplies of PV components than it did to depend on growing imports of Middle East oil. That was the main energy security issue for the US for the last 30 years, until the shale revolution unexpectedly reversed that trend. Relying on solar imports from China in the long run will be nothing like depending on Canada for the largest share of the petroleum the US still imports.

It also makes sense to address this situation now, before solar power has grown to 20% or 30% of the US electricity mix, and with the US economy near full employment, when those workers that did lose their jobs would have the best chance to replace them quickly.

From the start, the complaint of unfair competition lodged by Suniva Inc. and Solar World Americas--Chinese- and German-owned, respectively--has been derided as an effort to prop up a couple of marginal players at the expense of the much larger US solar-installation sector. That ignores the position of First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR), a US-based PV manufacturer with $3 billion in global sales. The company is on record supporting the trade complaint. Of course they aren't a disinterested party; they stand to benefit from a tariff that would raise the cost of competing PV gear from China and elsewhere.

That's precisely the point of the complaint: strengthening US solar manufacturers, so that the growth of solar energy in this country doesn't end up like TV sets and other consumer electronics. There's more at stake, because PV isn't TV. If solar power becomes a major part of US energy supplies by mid-century, it will actually matter if we have a robust manufacturing base to drive its deployment, rather than relying on any one country or region for its key building block.

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