Solar Hell

The road to hell is paved with a failure to think the future.

The road to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions. Many a grand plan has been undone by the unintended consequences of that plan – the result of a failure of foresight. Trump’s decision to impose punitive tariffs on imported solar energy components could be a case in point.

Let’s have some fun with numbers and see if you can join the dots.

Thanks to generous tax breaks and affordable imported solar energy components, uptake of US solar is at a point where, according to the US Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), more than 40% all new electricity generation capacity in the country now comes from solar, more than any other source. (Interestingly, the biggest uptake has been in sun-drenched states that voted for Trump).

So, solar is big business. According to the US National Jobs Census released in early February, the sector now employs 250 271 workers. (Context: the most recent census of the US coal industry in 2014 lists its number of workers at 76 572; museums employ 91 966).

According to EnergySage – an online comparison-shopping marketplace for solar energy systems – the United States installed 12 gigawatts (GW) of solar in 2017, of which an estimated 2.5 GW (just over 20%) was US-made solar panels.

Hang on a minute. If only a fraction of solar panels used in the US are manufactured in the US, exactly how many people are making those panels? According to an article in Forbes on January 18, between 29 companies manufacturing solar energy components in the US, it’s just over 6 000 people.

Now your foxy whiskers should be twitching. If only 6 000 of just over 250 000 are actually in manufacturing, how then are the bulk of that large workforce employed? The answer: installation, financing, services and energy distribution, all of which rely on the large uptake of affordable imported solar energy components. Adding a 30 percent tariff on solar cells and modules, will increase the cost of installing solar panels for American homeowners and utilities.

Joined the dots yet to see where this is going? The numbers differ from source, but it’s possible that Trump’s plan to build the US solar-manufacturing industry, could actually cost the industry anything between 23 000 and 88 000 jobs. This is the cost of protectionism.

[This article originally appeared on the mindofafox Growing Foxes app in the week of 19 February 2018. Growing Foxes is a school strategic intelligence programme designed by mindofafox. It is being piloted in a number of leading schools in the UK and South Africa. The app serves to support those students currently engaging with the programme. Click on the logo to find out more].

Image: The Solar Foundation