Many experts see big growth potential in the use of solar power to generate electricity in the United States. And indeed the growth rate of the industry in the past 20 years has been very impressive, although it has reached only 2% of U.S. power generating capacity. The U.S. Energy Information Agency thinks it could reach 20% by 2050, potentially making it one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy.
But tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on solar panel imports could slow that growth and increase reliance on fossil fuels at a time when most of the world is moving to reduce its use of them. A recent study by the American Action Forum found that it costs twice as much to install a watt of solar power in the United States as it does in most of the rest of the world. Both situations present troubling problems for the future of alternative energy.
The past decade has been a difficult time for U.S. solar power manufacturing companies, once the world’s most innovative. Aggressive, state-subsidized moves by China to corner the world market in photovoltaic cell production — it now supplies more than 70% — have flooded the market and cut the feet out from under U.S. producers.
While installation of U.S. solar power electricity generating capacity soared by 7,000% from 2010 to 2020, the number of solar power manufacturing employees grew only from about 25,000 in 2010 to less than 36,000 in 2020, according to the Solar Foundation.
The Trump tariffs have not done much to help solar panel manufacturers, according to a study last year by the International Trade Association. Companies continue to close, and the number of U.S. businesses making photovoltaic panels is now down to just two, according to Greentech Media.
Employment in the solar power industry is dominated by installation, and the Trump tariffs, by making imported photovoltaic panels more expensive, have cost installation jobs. The Solar Energy Industries Association has estimated that without the tariffs there would be 62,000 more jobs in the industry. It wants the Biden administration to remove the tariffs.
To do so could, however, mean the demise of what’s left of American solar power manufacturing capability.
Mr. Trump was right to confront China over its unfair and abusive trade practices, but now Mr. Biden faces a difficult choice between competing long-term goals. One is the shift away from fossil fuels and their contribution to global warming. The other is having a balanced economy capable of supplying its own critical needs without reliance on a potential adversary. Whatever he decides will have impacts beyond the solar industry.