Fellows in the News

Amid a cascade of political problems this fall, there could be a happy moment for Donald Trump. A trade case that will soon land on the president’s desk could give him an opportunity to boost American manufacturing and slam an Obama administration policy at the same time — while potentially winning praise from environmentalists for helping cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. International Trade Commission recommended Tuesday that the president impose tariffs on imported solar panels in order to counter the financial harm caused by a mix of seemingly unrelated economic trends — and the unintended consequences of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package — which have pushed the U.S. solar manufacturing industry to the brink of extinction.

The cost of the solar energy has plummeted, finally making the renewable power source price-competitive with fossil fuels. Solar panels are no longer a specialty item — there are scores of installers throughout the nation who make the process almost as easy as adding an appliance to a home. And with more people looking to match their buying habits with their environmental politics, the demand for solar continues to rise.

That should be welcome news after a series of devastating hurricanes and wildfires, and at a moment when scientists say the world needs to embrace renewable energy in order to prevent catastrophic climate change. But just last April, Suniva, one of America’s two largest manufacturers of solar panels, declared bankruptcy.

Instead of increasing domestic manufacturing, America’s rush to solar fueled an import boom — one effectively subsidized by the U.S. government. While Beijing had already begun propping up its solar industry, President Obama’s 2009 stimulus delivered hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to foreign companies.


The greenhouse gas payback time for a panel produced in a country with a carbon-intensive energy grid and installed in a country with a more energy-efficient grid can be considerable,says Dustin Mulvaney, a professor of environmental studies at San Jose State University who has researched the environmental cost of solar production.

A panel made in East Asia could use an energy grid that is four times more greenhouse gas-intensive than a grid in the U.S. If that panel’s energy payback time is two years, the efficiency discrepancy between the U.S. and, for example, China would make the greenhouse gas payback time eight years. Mulvaney added that factories that use installed solar capacity to help power their operations will reduce the carbon payback time of their panels.

At IBT’s request, Mulvaney made a calculation to estimate how much transportation might increase the greenhouse gas payback time of a panel made from polysilicon mined in Washington state, sent to China, manufactured in Malaysia and installed in Los Angeles. In this scenario, transport would account for a roughly 10 percent increase in carbon payback time, given that shipping is far less energy-intensive than trucking.

Considering both estimates, it could take nearly nine years for a panel installed on a U.S. roof to make up for the greenhouse gas emissions involved in its production and transportation. Most panels last around 25 years, so if used for its full lifespan, assuming it escaped any weather-related or other damages, the panel would pay off the carbon used in its production close to three times over.

Add comment

Log in to post comments

A vibrant community of environmental leaders