Greg's Bite: the crazy politics of solar energy
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Greg's Bite: the crazy politics of solar energy

By Greg Mills (gregmills@mac.com)

May 18, 2012: the US Department of Commerce places high tariffs on imported Chinese photovoltaic cells. In one of the most stunning, counter-intuitive, anti-green, anti-free enterprise moves the Obama administration has ever made (is that saying something or what?), the US has just placed tariffs of up to 249% on imported Chinese photovoltaic cells. Cheap photocells are bad for the US market? 

Three US photocell manufacturers whined to the Department of Commerce that Chinese photovoltaic cell manufacturing is being "subsidized" by the Chinese government, which allows them to "dump" cheap photovoltaic cells on the market.  What a terrible thing: dumping cheap photocells and cheap solar panels! The choice between dumped cheap Chinese photocells that produce "free" electricity for 20 years or more vs. expensive oil (which will only go up astronomically in cost over time) makes the new tariff as stupid as a bag of hammers. 

The biggest barrier to green energy, in the form of photoelectric installation, is really the cost per installed watt. The cost per watt for Chinese photocells has recently gone down dramatically due to China scaling up its silicon cell production and recent innovation. That the Chinese government was wise enough to invest in producing cheap solar cells is a good thing, not a bad thing.  

The US has recently done exactly the same thing, but foolishly invested in the wrong technology and squandered billions of tax dollars. We subsidize new solar installations in the US, so the "crime" of government interference in the solar market really cuts both ways. You can invest in driving the price per watt down or subsidize installation -- what is the difference? Both approaches are valid to achieve the major goal of converting to green energy. 

If the question is phrased like this; if the Chinese government chooses to dramatically reduce the price of solar cells to the world market, is that good or bad? Most people would think the Chinese are doing us a big favor, but that is not the thinking of the Obama administration. Supporting the fortunes of three US solar cell manufacturers is more important to the administration than the stated major goal of converting the US to renewable energy at affordable prices. 

As an old timer in the solar energy industry, I have seen the devastating effect short sighted governmental action has on the solar market. Back in the Carter administration the long lines for gasoline drove the government towards subsidizing solar energy with generous tax credits. A solar energy industry sprang up and began to move the US towards getting off the virtual energy monopoly imported oil had on us. As soon as oil prices leveled off, the solar subsidies expired and the fledgling solar industry withered. Private investments in solar startups were lost.

The time frame for launching and maturing solar energy technology is something the idiots in Congress don't understand. If nothing else, the solar energy business needs a stable environment as far as governmental issues are concerned. A tax credit program to support the conversion from oil to solar needs to be predictable and stupid things like intentionally and dramatically increasing the market price of solar cells is retrograde to the point of idiocy. 

Is it better for the US to have a way to economically achieve the goal of converting to green energy or is the protection of three non-competitive domestic solar cell manufactures more important? Gordon Brinser, president of SolarWorld Industries, who filed the complaint in October of last year with the Commerce Department gloated;  "The verdict is in, (the US) Commerce (department) has now confirmed that Chinese manufacturers are guilty of illegally dumping solar cells and panels in the US market."  

The argument that domestic production needs to be protected for the long term good of the USA makes sense. The issue is the way the Obama administration has chosen to do it. The department of Energy has been so motivated in granting money to politically favored solar companies they were blindsided by unproven and it turns out flawed solar technology.  Investing in innovative refinement and scaling up of known technology was the choice the Chinese made. US taxpayers bet $528,000,000 on Solyndra and lost it all. If investing half a billion dollars in Solyndra is different than what the Chinese did, I would like for someone to explain it to me.  

I submit that freely letting the Chinese dump all the cheap solar panels on the US market they want makes perfect sense. If the Chinese raise prices after driving US manufactures out of business, new and better technology and new companies are sure to spring up in a truly free enterprise environment.  To me the choice between expensive oil and cheap solar panels, no matter where they are made, is a no brainer.  

Greg Mills is a former Solar Contractor in California and Hawaii and an inventor.  See http://www.cottageindustrysolar.com .

 

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