Solar Industry Worries Tariffs Will Cost Rural Jobs
The president’s decision to place import charges on solar panels manufactured overseas will slow the growth of clean energy, solar proponents say. But it won’t stop it.
President Trump’s decision to enact a 30% tariff on imported solar panels and equipment is likely to slow job growth, but not devastate the growing industry, according to solar power companies and supporters of expanding clean energy production in rural communities.
“I see it as a full on attack on our industry, and on clean energy in general,” said Jeff Droz, owner of Roof Power Solar. “We have a president here with an actual push to promote coal, nuclear and other forms of concentrated power. The jobs, and the future, are with clean and decentralized sources of energy.”
Droz’s company is based in Rich Hill, a rural Missouri community that has lived through the boom and bust cycle of the coal industry. The rural town was founded as a coal mining center, its population peaking at over 4,000 in the early 1900s. Rich Hill’s population is now just over 1,000, and its poverty rate is 28.2%.
But Droz’s solar installation company is a bright spot in a town with few operating businesses.
“The solar industry is a high margin and high growth business,” Droz said. “In five years, I have a fully paid-for building and shop, cars and trucks, trailers and all of the equipment we need to do our work. I’m not sure there’s many other businesses where you get that done.”
Droz installs solar projects for farmers, businesses, homes, churches and municipalities throughout Southwestern Missouri. His company’s success story is part of a larger trend in rural communities.
Solar power and other green-energy systems are good for the rural economy, said Mike Carr, executive director of nonprofit New Energy America.
“Clean energy is putting more people to work in rural America,” Carr said. “The electricians installing solar panels, the welders building wind turbines, and the truck drivers delivering biofuels all benefit from policies that promote clean energy, and we’re here to tell their stories.”
The group released the first Clean Energy Jobs in Rural America Report, which contains a detailed analysis of clean energy jobs in each of the 50 states. The report shows that clean energy jobs outpace fossil energy jobs in 41 states.
The tremendous growth of the solar industry is also making a real difference in rural economies. With an average wage for a solar worker having risen to $26 per hour, according to the Solar Foundation, solar represented one out of every fifty new jobs added last year. In 2016 alone, 14.6 GW of solar was installed in the US; and it is projected that over 100GW of solar will be installed by 2021. About 70% of these installations were utility scale, the vast majority of which are built in rural locations, these projects will continue to drive middle-class job growth throughout the Midwest and Southeast, where other industries have seen stagnant growth or retraction.
The White House’s solar tariff announcement calls for a 30 percent year-one tariff on imported solar cells and modules. The tariffs will decline during the next four years, and the first 2.5 gigawatts of imported cells are excluded from the additional tariff in each of the four years.
The U.S. Trade Representative stated the tariff is necessary because of China’s industrial policy, which “has included a focus on increasing Chinese capacity and production of solar cells and modules, using state incentives, subsidies, and tariffs to dominate the global supply chain.”
These policies have helped to increase share of global solar cell production from 7 percent in 2005 to 61 percent in 2012. China now produces 60 percent of the world’s solar cells and 71 percent of solar modules, according to the fact sheet. Twenty-five U. S. companies have closed their doors since 2012.
The tariff was proposed by solar manufacturing companies Suniva and SolarWorld. Both companies manufacture solar products in the U. S., but they are owned by foreign entities.
The Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, claims that the president’s decision to impose the solar tariff will likely result in approximately 23,000 jobs lost throughout the country.
“While tariffs in this case will not create adequate cell or module manufacturing to meet U.S. demand, or keep foreign-owned Suniva and SolarWorld afloat, they will create a crisis in a part of our economy that has been thriving, which will ultimately cost tens of thousands of hard-working, blue-collar Americans their jobs,” stated Abigail Ross Hopper, the trade group’s president and CEO.
The Solar Foundation’s National Jobs Census reports that solar jobs have tripled since 2010 to more than 260,000. Coal mining, on the other hand employs about 50,500 people, below the industry’s 2012 level of 90,000 jobs.
“South Carolina has some of the lowest prices for utility scale solar in the country,” a spokesperson for Cypress Creek Renewables told the Greenwood Index-Journal.
“A 30 percent tariff potentially makes new projects more expensive and less viable, eliminating jobs and tax revenues in the rural counties that need them most,” Jeff McKay said.
But many in the industry say the tariff decision is only a bump in the road.
“The solar industry has come through worse policy decisions and will come through this one, too,” said Tony Clifford, chief development officer at Standard Solar, told Greentech Media. “The solar industry is nothing if not resilient, and I’m confident the innovative, tough and resourceful members of the industry will find workarounds to the latest obstacle placed in solar’s path. The Solar Century is here, and not even unfair tariffs will stand in its way.”
Back in rural Missouri, Jeff Droz agrees that the tariff isn’t a doom and gloom scenario. “The tariff might delay progress for a while, but I know what I’m going to be doing for the next ten years,” he said. “Overall, solar has gotten so common, so mainstream, I expect to stay busy installing solar systems.”
Droz says that it’s a matter of dollars and cents, especially with the price of panels and equipment decreasing exponentially in the past few years. “I just spent a week installing a system for the Adrian Water Plant,” said Droz, referring to another rural community in his home county.
“They are paying the same amount for their panels instead of the paying an electric bill for the next ten years, then they won’t have any electric bill afterwords. It’s going to save them money. They are going to be more efficient and cut costs for the taxpayer. It’s kind of a no-brainer,” Droz said.