Energy, Environmental Politics
Don’t Get Me Started: March 2018
No sympathy for the devil.
“What’s confusing you is the nature of my game.” — Sympathy for the Devil, Rolling Stones.
In January Donald Trump tried to live up to his campaign promise to revive the coal industry by imposing a 30% tariff on imported solar panels and cells. It’s not going to help much. Coal has been losing about 7% of its market share per year.
Fifty years ago, trade protectionism and tariffs were truly about saving jobs. In America, in the 21st century, tariffs are all about keeping the last few smokestack industries chugging along, long enough for their owners to squeeze a couple more billion dollars out of their stranded capital assets before they try to squeeze through the eye of a needle to their just reward. In many cases, like coal-fired power plants, their assets really are huge liabilities stemming from their eventual environmental cleanup costs. Which is another reason to postpone the day of reckoning till they have sucked enough money out of the company and enough life out of their miners to declare bankruptcy.
There are several reasons Trump imposed the tariff (beginning with all the generous donations he received form the coal industry), but saving a significant number of jobs wasn’t one of them, unless you count jobs in the coal industry. Nationally, fewer people work in the coal industry (50,000) than work for Arby’s. The solar industry currently accounts for 260,000 jobs in the American economy. The effect of Trump’s tariff could actually be a net loss of jobs in the economy, unless we all take up the mantle and do even more to reduce our carbon footprint Acquiring a solar system of our own is a huge step in that direction—solar panels, electric vehicles (car and bike), in-home battery).
Industry estimates put the increased cost of an installed residential solar system due to the tariff at 3%—and up to 10% for large commercial solar systems. The tariff sets the relentlessly increasing affordability of solar systems back about a year. Other than guaranteeing more political donations from the coal industry to Trump and Republicans, the tariff, which declines by 5% for three years, shouldn’t have much of an effect on solar installation rates.
The solar panel tariff case was originally brought by two “Made in the USA” solar cell manufacturers, Suniva and SolarWorld USA, both now controlled by foreign parent companies. The fact that Suniva is now owned by Hong Kong-based Shunfeng International Clean Energy must have had Trump on the horns of a dilemma for a while. Obviously Trump values capitalist interests over national interests.
Ironically, the situation the coal industry finds itself in is, in no small part, the result of the boom-and-bust nature of the energy business. That, and the aggressive environmental regulations set in place by the Obama administration. The two largest coal companies, Peabody and Arch Coal, have recently filed for bankruptcy and local hero Murray Energy Corp. could soon do the same.
The demise of the coal industry may not come soon enough for coal miners, who, according to an NPR story by local NPR correspondent Howard Berkes, are the victims of a resurgence of black lung disease. The increase is the result of decades of Republican-style workplace health “protections,” which only protected the wealth of mine owners. The increasing difficulty in rending coal from the earth, now found in thinner seams, results in more rock being mined with the coal. This is actually more dangerous than breathing straight coal dust, leading to silicosis.
If the coal industry really wanted to do something about its plummeting share of the energy market it would oppose fracking, which has lowered the cost of natural gas to the point where coal-fired power plants are switching to natural gas in droves. Obama-era environmental regulations have played a big part in prompting the switch. While Trump has the power to change some of those regulations, the uncertainty of what the next administration will do, or undo, will lead most utilities to make the switch from coal to natural gas-fired power plants, or even to virtual power plants. Which is where you come in.
When the Sun doesn’t shine
The greatest weakness of electric power as a reliable source of electricity has been the inability to store meaningful amounts of it. Last fall the Trump administration proposed to force electric utilities to buy electricity from coal and nuclear plants that guarantee these plants a “fair” rate of return, on the grounds that only coal and nuclear electricity power generation can “store” their fuel, in the unlikely event of an electricity apocalypse. This only provides another incentive to add a home battery to your solar system.
Thousands of home solar systems that include home batteries could provide electricity storage for entire communities. To that end, Tesla announced plans in February to build a “virtual power plant” in South Australia. In four years. the plant will consist of 50,000 homes with 5kW of solar cells and a Tesla Powerwall 2 battery connected into an “internet of energy.”
This project, along with a just completed 100 megawatt-hour battery farm, will help the state of South Australia store the electricity from the many wind farms in the state. Virtual power plants, and all that they entail, have many advantages. Perhaps the greatest is giving market access to individual solar system owners.
The take-away is that you should start planning to incorporate a home battery into your solar system. Maybe not right now, but soon. Battery prices continue a steady decline, which will allow all of us to become a little part of virtual power plants.
As far as sympathy for the devil goes, it’s important to be discerning on our demonization. Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt are just puppets, albeit unruly puppets. Trump this, Trump that—when it’s really the Republicans-this and the Republicans-that. Very little of what Trump does is originally his idea, not even the craziest stuff. It’s all there in the Republican platform.
John deJong is associate publisher of CATALYST.