Federal attacks on clean energy market disproportionately impact the South

New federal energy policies threaten the growing solar energy market and the jobs it provides, like at this solar installation in North Carolina. (© Alice Keeney)

Following energy policy decisions favoring fossil fuel industry interests and attempts to prop up aging, uneconomic coal plants, the Trump administration and some members of Congress continue to take aim at the burgeoning clean energy market.  

This week the Trump administration announced plans to impose tariffs on imported solar panels, starting at 30 percent for the first year and dropping to 15 percent over the next few years. The decision has rattled the rapidly expanding solar industry, which depends on panels and other parts manufactured overseas for 80 percent of its supply. As a result of the tariffs, the Solar Energy Industries Association has projected tens of thousands of job losses in a sector that employs 260,000 nationwide.

An analysis from Greentech Media shows that emerging state solar markets will be disproportionately affected by the tariffs, with the most significant impacts on Southern states like Texas, Florida and South Carolina. Georgia, the home base for Suniva and one of the companies involved in the International Trade Commission’s recommendation to enact the tariffs, will be the fourth most affected market. 

Other federal attacks on clean energy appear to be in the wings. The tariffs follow a Congressional hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce last week on proposed legislation seeking to roll back important provisions of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), making it easier for utilities to shut out competitive clean energy. 

PURPA plays an essential role in the Southeast’s renewable energy market as a key protection against utility-dominated markets and significant policy barriers. It also serves as a major economic driver in North and South Carolina, two of the top PURPA markets in the country.

Introduced by U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, HR 4476 or the “PURPA Modernization Act of 2017” proposes to give utilities the ability to avoid purchasing cost-effective energy from small independent power producers simply by claiming the utilities have no need for it.

During the hearing, Karl Rábago, executive director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center, testified that PURPA is essential for preventing improper discrimination against small renewable power producers, and that HR 4476 should be rejected in favor of a more measured and competition-friendly approach to addressing any perceived concerns.

“This bill sides with utilities attempting to dismantle PURPA protections in order to protect their monopoly status, which allows them to continue investing consumers’ money in expensive utility-owned generation,” said Katie Ottenweller, senior attorney and leader of SELC’s Solar Initiative. “Without the necessary checks and balances that make it possible for affordable clean energy to compete against monopoly-generated power, this move would essentially put the fox in charge of the henhouse.”

In the face of federal attempts to undermine solar, SELC continues to defend Southerners’ rights to go solar and to encourage state and local leadership that will drive clean energy investments.

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