A lump of coal for the so­lar in­dus­try

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - OPINION -

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.

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