Shared from the 1/30/2018 Star Tribune eEdition


Solar tariffs more likely to cut than protect jobs

Most solar work involves installation, not manufacturing, so higher panel costs will hurt. Minnesota can and should take steps to help.

Last week, President Donald Trump announced new tariffs on imported solar cells and modules. While the goal of these tariffs is to protect American jobs, analysts are predicting the opposite effect.

Because 80 percent of solar panels in the United States are produced abroad, this move would raise prices, slow development of new projects and reduce employment in solar installation.

The vast majority of local jobs in the solar sector are involved in installing solar panels, not manufacturing them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, solar-panel installer is projected to be the fastest-growing job class over the next decade across the entire economy (wind turbine service technician is No. 2). These jobs don’t depend on where solar panels are manufactured and are threatened by last week’s announcement. U.S. solar installers have unanimously echoed the disappointment over the new tariffs that is being expressed across the political spectrum.

Here in Minnesota, we are on the cusp of a transformation of our energy system. Last week, the Minnesota Department of Commerce released new data showing that more solar was installed in the first half of 2017 than in the previous 10 years combined. We now have enough solar to power 80,000 homes. With this growth have come many new jobs. In 2016, the last year with available data, nearly 3,000 Minnesotans worked in the solar industry, a 44 percent increase over 2015. This figure is undoubtedly much higher today.

Yet few of Minnesota’s solar jobs are in manufacturing. Across the U.S., manufacturers haven’t been able to compete with cheap Chinese imports. Despite a tumultuous history of trying to protect solar panels “Made in Minnesota” from global competition, there are few solar manufacturers left in the state. Even if manufacturing comes back, few jobs would be created as U.S. manufacturing is so highly automated.

With the new tariffs, the Trump administration is directly threatening one of the healthiest sectors of Minnesota’s economy. The state’s government should not stand idly by. A key priority should be targeting opportunities to grow jobs while providing stability, so that investors, whether they be homeowners, electric utilities or community solar garden participants, can be confident in the economics of their solar investment. The state has concrete policy options that could maintain and even accelerate job growth in the solar sector.

First, Minnesota has a strong clean energy foundation thanks to the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act and the 2013 Solar Energy Jobs Act. These laws guarantee that Minnesota will receive at least 25 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2025, of which 1.5 percent will come from solar. Creating new, more aggressive targets for future years would establish a vision for the energy sector and allow investors to continue making the kinds of long-term commitments in Minnesota that our clean energy future needs.

Second, Minnesota is unique in that half of the solar projects in the state are community solar gardens. These projects create opportunities for consumers to buy or lease solar panels in a larger project located off-property. We should be proud that Minnesota has the largest set of community solar programs in the country.

But community solar isn’t working for everyone. A positive reform would be to more strongly incentivize community solar gardens for residential, rather than commercial, energy users. Bringing more residential energy users into community solar would send a message that a more sustainable energy future can be shared by people of all incomes, regardless of whether they have a suitable roof, and whether they own or rent their home.

Finally, the state should support private companies that want to do research to improve solar technology, particularly ways to lower the cost of installing and maintaining solar panels. As solar module costs have rapidly declined, all other costs of installing solar (electronics, labor, equipment, etc.) increasingly drive the economics. Discovering new ways to more afford-ably install solar in an environment of artificially higher module prices will mean that more people can afford solar and more people can be employed installing solar in Minnesota.

Trump’s tariffs could destroy tens of thousands of jobs across the country. Let’s protect Minnesotans working in clean energy — and protect our environment too.

Gabriel Chan is an assistant professor at the

University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Jacob Herbers is a master’s degree candidate in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at the Humphrey School.

Fast-growing solar jobs don’t depend on where panels are made and are threatened by the new tariffs.

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