A lump of coal for the solar industry
In the next few weeks President Donald Trump and his administration will make decisions that could jack up the price of solar panels, boost electric rates for millions of Americans and lead to job losses, all to the benefit of a handful of corporations.
If the administration takes those steps, we believe it will undermine working markets and dabble in crony capitalism that has already drawn fire from both the left and the right.
Trump has until Jan. 13 to act on a recommendation from the International Trade Commission to impose tariffs on imported solar cells. Two bankrupt solar panel makers — Suniva and Solar World — filed a complaint arguing that cheap imports have hurt domestic producers. The commission agreed. It is worth noting that Georgia-based Suniva is owned by Chinese and Wall Street interests. Solar World is the subsidiary of a German company.
Inexpensive imported solar cells have fueled the growth for solar power and solar employment. Stiff tariffs could lead to the loss of up to 88,000 jobs, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Also opposing any new tariffs are environmental and conservative groups, including The Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the R Street Institute, which called the case “an example of the worst kind of trade protectionism.”
At the same time, Energy Secretary Rick Perry is pushing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to take action by Dec. 11 on a proposal to give financially struggling coal-fired and nuclear power plants subsidies for having a 90-day supply of fuel. The commission says it will need more time.
The proposed rule change comes after a U.S. Department of Energy study, which we already criticized for seeking “sops for the coal and nuclear industries.”
Colorado isn’t in one of the Midwest or Eastern wholesale power markets that are targets of the proposal, though Xcel Energy and other Colorado utilities are exploring joining a wholesale market.
In these markets, serving twothirds of the country, utilities place orders for electricity and power generators, utilities or independent producers who offer their supplies at their best price. The market clears by matching the lowest-priced offers first. The problem is that natural-gas and renewable generation are consistently beating aging coal and nuclear plants on price.
So, the Trump administration wants to give those plants a subsidy that could add as much as an extra $14 billion a year on to customer bills.
Perry argues that these fuel reserves aid the power grid’s resiliency and security. But federal data show that between 2010 and 2016 coal-fired plants rarely had a 90-day fuel supply and things worked just fine.
The Rhodium Group, an energy consultant, found that between 2012 and 2016 the main causes of outages were downed lines and frayed equipment — not a loss of electricity supply.
And who would get those billions of dollars? About 80 percent of the coal subsidies would go to five companies and the nuclear dollars to five other operators.
We believe the nation’s power grid needs to be revamped and coal-fired and nuclear plants can’t be allowed to collapse en masse, but Perry’s plan just shovels money to a coterie of big utility companies.
As for the Suniva case, when environmental groups and conservative groups backed by the Koch brothers both oppose the imposition of solar tariffs, we have to believe it is a bad idea.