Trump just claimed the U.S. makes better solar panels than China. That's not quite right

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In the biggest blow he’s dealt to the renewable energy industry yet, President Donald Trump decided on Monday to slap tariffs on imported solar panels.
Time

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — At a White House meeting focused on the Florida school shooting, President Trump took a brief detour into the world of solar power, bragging that he’s brought back domestic manufacturing and that America makes better solar panels than China.

The problem? Those statements aren’t supported by facts, experts say.

New plants?

Veering away from remarks on preventing gun violence, the president told a group of governors that his recent import taxes on foreign-made washing machines and solar panels are already having a positive impact. After suggesting the solar tariff has been in place for two months — it’s actually been less than three weeks — Trump claimed that American solar manufacturers are “opening up at least five plants.”

“We had 32 solar panel plants. Of the 32, 30 were closed and two were on life-to-life resuscitation. They were dead. Now they’re talking about opening up many of them, reopening plants that have been closed for a long time,” Trump said.

More: Trump tariffs on solar panels, washing machines could raise prices

Previously: Solar industry on edge as Trump weighs tariffs on panels

But in reality, there’s no evidence the import tax has done anything to revive U.S. solar manufacturing, especially after such a short period of time, said Hugh Bromley, a solar analyst at the research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“There’s no massive wave of capital investment in new facilities occurring at this stage, and nor do we really expect it to occur,” Bromley said.

Solar power has boomed in the United States over the last decade, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and helping reduce climate pollution. But many U.S. manufacturing plants have shut down amid a wave of lower-cost solar panels from other countries.

Solar analysts don’t expect Trump’s import tax to make much of a difference. For one thing, the tariff only lasts four years, and it gets smaller over time. For another, U.S. solar companies imported more panels than they needed last year in anticipation of the tariff, building a buffer. There are also plenty of loopholes. Solar panels built in India, South Africa and dozens of other countries are exempt, as are panels built overseas by First Solar, an Arizona-based company whose solar cells have a unique chemistry.

“Tariffs might create a short burst of manufacturing activity, but won’t do much to sustain those investments long-term,” MJ Shiao, head of Americas research at the clean-tech consulting firm GTM Research, said in an email.

The numbers

Experts also questioned the president’s numbers.

Shiao said there were at least five companies still building solar panels in the U.S. last year, not two plants “on life-to-life resuscitation,” as Trump claimed. And the idea that 30 solar facilities closed because of foreign imports was “a myth” spread by Suniva, a U.S. solar manufacturer that pushed for tariffs, according to Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, an industry trade group that opposed tariffs.

“We took a look at those 30 companies and they are not all (solar) cell and panel manufacturers and, even more importantly, they did not go out of business primarily because of imports,” Hopper said in a statement.

Quality vs. efficiency

What about Trump’s claim that America makes “much higher-quality” solar panels than China?

U.S.-made solar panels tend to be more efficient than those built in China and other Asian countries, generating slightly more electricity from the same amount of sunlight, according to Bromley. But here’s a difference between quality and efficiency.

“(Efficiency) is not quality. Quality is how well it’s assembled,” Bromley said.

“There’s some truth to the fact that Suniva and SolarWorld panels are higher-efficiency than your average, off-the-shelf Asian product,” he added, referring to the two U.S. manufacturers who urged Trump to tax foreign solar panels. “They’re not necessarily higher-quality than Asian panels. In fact, our surveys would suggest the opposite.”

Shiao went a step further, saying China and other Asian countries are “leading the pack in manufacturing advanced and quality solar modules.” Chinese companies, he said, are making big strides on panel efficiency by spending on research and development.

“The idea that Chinese companies make technologically inferior solar products on the back of cheap labor is an outdated myth. Instead, the Chinese government has invested heavily in solar manufacturers,” Shiao said in an email.

More broadly, the question of what constitutes an American versus a Chinese solar panel is tough to answer. Suniva — which has built panels in Georgia and Michigan, and which filed for bankruptcy last year before launching its tariff push — is majority-owned by a Chinese company. And many Chinese manufacturers have already moved their operations to Singapore, South Korea and other Southeast Asian countries, in response to a previous round of solar tariffs from the Obama administration targeting China.

Job creator?

The Trump administration has argued an import tax will create manufacturing jobs. But most U.S. solar companies oppose the idea, arguing it will actually kill jobs by making solar power more expensive. The American solar industry employed 260,000 people last year, according to an industry survey, the vast majority of them in installation, sales, and other non-manufacturing jobs. If panels gets more expensive, the thinking goes, fewer people and businesses will buy solar, leading to job losses across the industry.

“The tariff decision was bad for American jobs and our economy,” Hopper, from the solar industry trade group, said in a statement. “While we have not heard of five new factories in the works, we can be clear about what we do know: that these tariffs will raise prices for US solar customers and cause thousands of Americans to lose their jobs.”

Follow Sammy Roth on Twitter: @Sammy_Roth

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It will sell solar panels and powerwalls in 800 Home Depot stores.
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