Solar power’s great leap forward over the past decade has been stunning. Solar energy can now supply nearly 14 million homes in the U.S., up from fewer than 800,000 in 2010, and the price for solar generation has plunged by 90 percent. Over the same time, our solar workforce — primarily installers — has more than doubled, to nearly 250,000. Southern states like Florida, South Carolina, and Texas are starting to realize their solar potential, ranking behind only California in new installed capacity last year, when solar accounted for nearly 40 percent of new electrical production nationwide. “Today, solar is cheaper than pretty much any other power technology you can install,” says Jigar Shah, the founder of Sun-Edison, who now helms the green-investment firm Generate Capital.
Solar’s growth is now endangered by the economic slowdown posed by the coronavirus. But the industry faced headwinds from the White House even before the crisis hit. President Trump has used the powers of his presidency to champion fossil fuels — his latest budget request includes $500 million for clean-coal research — while mocking climate change and pulling America out of the Paris Agreement. When it comes to renewables, Trump habitually blasts “ugly” windmills, which he falsely claimed cause cancer. And he’s used high tariffs and his budget authority to slow the deployment of solar. The administration has created “speed bumps,” says Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). California’s energy commissioner prefers a different metaphor: “It’s a great example,” says David Hochschild, “of us shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Trump’s hobbling of solar is particularly grievous because it has the rare ability to bypass partisan fights about global warming. Americans across the political spectrum have embraced rooftop solar as a way to lower their electrical bills and survive blackouts and superstorms. For many conservatives, solar-energy autonomy is appealing. “Solar provides some choice from being tethered to these government-created monopolies,” says Debbie Dooley, who leads the Green Tea Coalition, an offshoot of the Tea Party. “Solar equals freedom.” In a rare mark of political unity, the federal tax credit that offsets the costs of installing solar panels enjoys support from 89 percent of Americans — including 83 percent of Republicans.
If we have any hope of significantly confronting the climate crisis, solar is a linchpin technology. In the U.S. alone, solar deployment has already reduced carbon output by the equivalent of planting 1.3 billion trees. Mark Jacobson, a professor of engineering at Stanford University, has modeled how America can reach zero emissions by 2050 with massive deployment of existing solar and wind technologies. Following his road map, America would need to install 2,000 gigawatts of solar by 2050 — a huge leap from our current 75 gigawatts of U.S. capacity.
Closing the gap would require year-over-year growth of 36 percent, but even the most optimistic projections from the solar industry were running at half of that. At that rate, “you’ll eventually transition everything, except it will be too slow,” Jacobson says. “If you really want to solve the problem,” lawmakers need to pursue a solar revolution like “you’re in World War II.”
Instead of putting the country on a war footing against climate change, Trump has gone to war with solar, obscuring his attack within his broader trade hostilities. Asian countries lead the world in solar-panel production, and U.S. manufacturers have long cried foul about state-subsidized foreign factories dumping their overproduction here. (Solar installers, by contrast, welcomed the influx of cheap panels that boosted their businesses.) In early 2018, the Trump administration imposed steep tariffs on foreign solar panels. Trump’s tariffs are estimated to have blocked 10.5 gigawatts of solar capacity from coming on line, enough to power 1.8 million homes with carbon-free energy, according to the SEIA. U.S. prices for solar panels are now among the highest in the world.
At the tariff signing ceremony, Trump highlighted the hardships of domestic solar manufacturers. “Our companies have been decimated,” he said. And he promised that the solar tariffs would mean “those companies are going to be coming back strong,” adding that tariffs would translate into new opportunities for “a lot of workers, a lot of jobs.” In reality, the Trump taxes have put tens of thousands of Americans out of work. The import restrictions did spur the growth of about 2,000 domestic solar-manufacturing jobs, according to an analysis by the SEIA. But that was more than offset by solar-panel sticker shock — Americans chose to forgo nearly $19 billion in solar investments that could have supported 62,000 solar-installation jobs.
It’s not hard to understand why 31 service jobs would be lost for every manufacturing job gained. American manufacturers cannot compete with Asian producers on labor costs, so they’ve invested in automation. In 2017, I toured the Oregon-based factory of SolarWorld, one of the companies that petitioned Trump for tariffs. The massive 465,000-square-foot complex was eerily devoid of people — almost all of the work was performed by robots. The passage of tariffs has not boosted worker fortunes here. The plant has changed ownership twice, benefiting large, foreign-owned corporations that bought and sold it, but not local workers. Solar production now employs just 250 people here — down from a peak of 800. Most of the building is now used as a server farm.
Trump dealt solar another bad hand in the 2020 budget deal he signed in December. The solar-investment credit, available to both homeowners and utilities, was not extended, and has begun winding down, from 30 percent in 2019 to 26 percent in 2020. In two years, it will end for homeowners. “Congress definitely dropped the ball,” Hopper says. “Extending the tax credit was really a tool to help address the climate crisis.” Solar still makes economic sense for many homes and businesses, but capacity would “grow much more quickly, and reduce the carbon much more quickly, if we had that additional incentive,” she says.
Trump’s efforts to slow solar growth have been a gift to the utility sector, which has warned since 2013 that a rapid rise in distributed solar power could prompt customers to live off-the-grid, sparking a “utility death spiral” in which remaining rate payers receive higher and higher energy bills to sustain aging electrical plants — prompting ever more customers to declare energy independence. The utilities don’t oppose solar technology, per se, but they do want to develop it themselves, in large-scale, centralized installations, similar to legacy power plants, allowing them to continue to make a profit. The Trump administration has their backs. In keeping with Trump’s agenda of opening public lands to industry, the Interior Department recently approved a record $1 billion, 690-megawatt solar plant to be built on a federal desert outside Las Vegas, to the benefit of NV Energy, owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
The positive news is that states and localities had been stepping up to address the void in federal leadership. “In response to the Trump administration, the states have been doing more than we thought they would,” says Shah. New York state has passed aggressive clean-energy legislation and celebrated reaching more than two gigawatts of solar power in December, with a goal of six gigawatts by 2025. And standards passed by New York City will require green roofs or solar arrays on new and renovated buildings.
California continues to be the runaway leader in solar with more than 10 gigawatts installed, and it passed 1 million solar rooftops last year. In January, the state began enforcing a mandate that new homes be built with solar panels sufficient to cover the home’s electricity needs. “We build about 120,000 homes a year in California,” says Hochschild, who notes that solar homes frequently lead their owners to adopt other green technologies, like electric cars.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the industry’s expected growth into question. The SEIA warned Congress in a letter that, “The COVID-19 crisis is threatening…jobs and investments at a time when we need them most.” It cautions that up to 50 percent of planned residential projects could be canceled and that solar business owners are “deeply concerned about…keeping their companies solvent during a protracted period of dramatically fewer projects.”
But in the longer term, there are still reasons to be optimistic about solar’s expansion. Hochschild points to a growing number of states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, that have followed California’s lead in adopting 100 percent renewable-energy mandates, now covering nearly 30 percent of America’s population. “States have a huge amount of power,” Hochschild says. “California should be understood as a postcard from the future for what U.S. policy can be” on solar energy. “It’s been a win for us, very clearly,” he says. “That’s why I’m hopeful that we can see a lot more progress on clean energy under new leadership in the White House.”