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Trump's Assault on Solar Masks an Epic Crisis in the Nuclear Industry

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From The Progressive


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As Donald Trump launches his latest assault on renewable energy -- imposing a 30 percent tariff on solar panels imported from China -- a major crisis in the nuclear power industry is threatening to shut four high-profile reactors, with more shutdowns to come. These closures could pave the way for thousands of new jobs in wind and solar, offsetting at least some of the losses from Trump's attack.

Like nearly everything else Trump does, the hike in duties makes no rational sense. Bill McKibben summed it up, tweeting: "Trump imposes 30% tariff on imported solar panels -- one more effort to try and slow renewable energy, one more favor for the status quo."

The administration's public excuse for imposing these tariffs is to "defend American workers," and foster the production of panels here at home. The political impetus came primarily from two manufacturers -- Suniva and SolarWorld -- that manufacture in the United States, but are principally owned by foreigners. Ironically, a majority of Suniva is actually owned by Chinese investors, and the company is currently involved in a tortuous debt dispute that has clouded its future.

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SolarWorld's parent company, based in Bonn, Germany, has been involved in bankruptcy proceedings that prompted its owners at one point to try to sell the company's American holdings, primarily a manufacturing facility in Oregon.

China's record on renewable energy is mixed. The nation has long been committed to nuclear energy, and currently has 38 reactors in operation. After the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, China staged a major re-examination of its new reactor projects, but has since committed to building another 20.

But China has also poured immense resources into leading the world in photovoltaic cell production. It flooded the field with below-cost, government subsidized panels that helped drive the photovoltaics giant Solyndra into bankruptcy. Solyndra defaulted on a $500 million Obama loan, prompting a high-profile assault on renewables from fossil and nuclear advocates.

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But in the years since, the burgeoning U.S. market for cheap Chinese panels has birthed a very large industry. More than a quarter-million Americans now work in photovoltaics, with most of the jobs in building desert arrays or perching the panels on rooftops. Except for the very marginal pressure from Suniva and SolarWorld, solar advocates have focussed on the rapid spread of low-cost panels, even if they come from China.

In 2011, then-U.S. Senator Sander Levin of Michigan charged the Chinese with unfair trade practices, saying in a statement, "China is systematically deploying an arsenal of trade distorting policies to corner the global market in green technology products, whether it be electric cars, wind turbines or solar products."

Powered largely by Chinese product, the cost of a solar-generated watt of power has dropped from $6.00 in the late 1990s to around $0.72 in 2016. Further drops are considered inevitable. At that price, there is virtually no economic margin for any other new energy production construction except wind and natural gas. Even gas -- with its uncertain long-term supply -- is on the cusp of being priced out.

Thus, the industry's reaction to Trump's solar panel tariff has been fierce.

"We are not happy with this decision," Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the American Solar Energy Association, told Reuters. "It's just basic economics -- if you raise the price of a product, it's going to decrease demand for that product." Trump's move is predicted to drop upcoming solar installations by 10 to 15 percent and cost some 23,000 jobs.

Sustainable energy professor Scott Sklar, in an email to The Progressive, estimated that Trump's 30 percent tariff will, after four years, "retard the solar market by 9 percent, cause the loss of thousands of U.S. jobs, and not save the two companies that brought the anti-competitive tariff request initially. The tariff was a political statement to China rather than specifically addressing the health of the U.S. solar industry and increasing U.S. solar jobs."

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Two major developments in the nuclear power industry further illustrate the absurdity of Trump's decision.

In California, the Public Utilities Commission has gutted a major agreement that would have kept two mammoth reactors at Diablo Canyon operating for several more years. The landmark deal -- cut between Pacific Gas & Electric, the host communities around San Luis Obispo, the reactors' union workers and two environmental groups -- called for PG&E to collect some $1.3 billion from ratepayers.

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Harvey is a lifelong activist who speaks, writes and organizes widely on energy, the environment, election protection, social justice, grass-roots politics and natural healing, personal and planetary.He hosts "California Solartopia" at KPFK-Pacifica and "Green Power & Wellness" atprn.fm. (more...)
 

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