BRATTLEBORO — Heavier taxes on imported solar equipment approved this week by President Donald Trump are not getting a sunny reception from groups that will be affected in the Green Mountain State.
"Vermonters pride ourselves on our self-reliance, and local solar power provides that, in addition to supporting our communities' economy," said Olivia Campbell Anderson, executive director of the industry association Renewable Energy Vermont. "We can't let anti-climate action, anti-renewable federal decisions deter us from what we need to do for our local economy, environment and children."
The New York Times reported that the tariffs will start with levies of 30 percent for the first three years, then fall to 15 percent in the fourth year. More than 95 percent of America's solar panels are imported.
The Associated Press wrote that businesses installing solar-power systems are benefiting from "a glut of cheaper panels made overseas, mostly in Asia" — making solar power more competitive with electricity generated from coal and natural gas.
"The only thing I would hope is that any increased tariffs imposed by the United States would be moderate at most and so not have an undue negative influence on the burgeoning solar installation industry in the U.S., and that any increased tariffs by the U.S. not kick off a tariff 'war,' " said Michael Bosworth, chairman of the Brattleboro Energy Committee.
Ralph Meima, director of project development at Green Lantern Capital, is sure his company will be affected in some way. Green Lantern has projects planned in local towns such as Newfane
"We're trying to assess the damage," Meima said. "Because we have stockpiled panels in anticipation of this and because the foreign suppliers have pushed their prices down in anticipation of a tariff, the impact may not be felt immediately. But it may have a chilling effect on solar employment and investment nationally."
The Huffington Post reported that solar companies created one in 50 new jobs in 2016 and the Solar Foundation expected that number to be higher for 2017 when figures are released later.
Although the tariffs on solar equipment are meant to strengthen business for manufacturers in the U.S., about 23,000 to 88,000 jobs in the solar industry could be lost in the United States due to this change in policy, according to estimates from news reports.
Meima said tariffs for high-demand technology products "just force the foreign competitors to rationalize their manufacturing even more ruthlessly, force costs down even faster, and — when the tariffs expire — control an even greater share of the global market."
"I think the Trump administration is looking at this in terms of optics and his base, not in terms of sound economics," he added.
REV worries the import tax will "unnecessarily" increase the price of solar panels later this year, Anderson said. She suggested people invest in solar now if they have been thinking about doing so.
"Vermont's local solar installers and manufacturers have worked tirelessly for almost two decades to lower cost barriers and enable Vermonters the freedom to affordably generate their own energy," she said. "The Trump solar tax takes us backward on that progress."
In the long run, Anderson said, solar will still be a better and more cost-effective choice for keeping energy prices stable and mitigating climate pollution.
"We are concerned about the impact on future customers, and many local businesses have stored up panels to help their customers mitigate the impact of the Trump tax in the near term," she said. "Despite these new federal headwinds on renewables, Vermont's installer community is committed to helping Vermonters move towards a future powered by local renewable energy. With a lack of federal leadership, it's really up to state and local communities to get us back on track."
Still, with the combination of the tariffs and more restrictive rules around solar development in Vermont, Anderson worries about the future of renewable energy in the state.
"When you add the Trump tax atop last year's restrictions on net metering by the [Vermont] Public Utility Commission, it's becoming needlessly harder for community groups, schools, and towns to access local solar energy and generate their own electricity," Anderson said. "Over the last year, the amount of new net-metered solar permitted [in Vermont] decreased by 50 percent. In 2018, the Trump tax may likely cut local generation further."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.