Why solar power poses a very tricky problem for Donald Trump
The worst imaginable president for climate change might be about to take power, but solar is still a bright spot. The technology and business infrastructure of solar panel manufacturing has been getting better at a blistering pace, and the latest estimates conclude that solar will surpass coal as the cheapest electricity source within a single decade — and in many places, it already has.
This raises the question of what President Trump will do about the solar business. Most Republicans, Trump included, are heavily committed to filth-spewing power sources like coal and natural gas, and deny the science of climate change. But while Republicans will no doubt want to use regulations and subsidies to prop up fossil fuels and keep down renewables, Trump has shown a bizarre fixation with U.S.-based manufacturing jobs that might just redound to solar's benefit.
The latest estimate of solar panels' economic viability comes via Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The price of solar power has plummeted by 62 percent merely since 2009. Taking into account current trends and planned technological developments, they estimate solar will be on average the world's cheapest power source by about 2026, without subsidies of any kind.
That average hides much variability, of course — in some sunny regions, solar is already astoundingly cheap:
In 2016, countries from Chile to the United Arab Emirates broke records with deals to generate electricity from sunshine for less than 3 cents a kilowatt-hour, half the average global cost of coal power. Now, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Mexico are planning auctions and tenders for this year, aiming to drop prices even further. Taking advantage: Companies such as Italy’s Enel SpA and Dublin's Mainstream Renewable Power, who gained experience in Europe and now seek new markets abroad as subsidies dry up at home. [Bloomberg]
It's important to note that solar panels are an awkward fit for today's energy grid. Panels obviously only produce power during the day, which lines up imperfectly with the demand for power — particularly at the end of the day, as the sun sets and people come home from work, creating the infamous "duck curve." It will take quite a lot of updating and policy reform to fully take advantage of cheap solar.
A country that wasn't ruled by unhinged maniacs would take various steps to level out the duck curve: rolling out massive power storage, making the grid as big as possible to spread out peak solar generation, upgrading it into a "smart grid" that can reroute power based on real-time conditions and incentivize technology and tricks to avoid spikes in demand, and so on. With some reasonable upgrades and policies, the U.S. grid could accommodate a tremendous amount of renewable power.
Instead Republicans will likely respond to the growth of solar by trying to stamp it out by allowing fossil fuels to pollute to their heart's content (thus granting them a huge implicit subsidy), and passing burdensome new regulations on renewables. On the face of it, this fits well with Donald Trump's campaign, which was all about valorizing traditionally masculine jobs, particularly in manufacturing and manual labor. In the conservative shorthand, coal is tough and cool, while renewables are for sissy Prius-drivers.
But on the other hand, this stereotype is wildly at odds with the actual reality of the solar business. Solar panels must be manufactured (as of 2015, there were about 30,000 such jobs in the United States) and installed by manual laborers (120,000 jobs as of 2015). That number has no doubt grown substantially in the past year, as solar jobs have been consistently increasing in number by about 20 percent per year.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, that's not that big of a fraction of total jobs (though it will be soon at that rate of growth). But the weird thing about Trump is the extremely personalized attention he gives to far smaller numbers of similar jobs. He boasted for a week straight about saving a few hundred jobs at a Carrier plant in Indiana, and again when his intervention supposedly preserved a Ford factory in Michigan (though later it turned out that shifting demand trends were behind the move).
Stamping out solar would kill an order of magnitude more jobs than that. If Trump got wind of some policy that would strangle American solar — or worse yet, force the company to pick up and move to Europe or China — there is a genuine chance he'll go on one of his Twitter rampages and force the Republican Congress to back down.
Conversely, it will be genuinely difficult to revive coal jobs, which have been in long-term decline since the 1970s. Big Coal has been all but killed off by competition with fracked natural gas and, increasingly, renewables. It is smaller than solar and shrinking fast. Stark hypocrisy is basically the Republican motto, but even they might struggle with the large and increasing subsidies necessary to prop up an ever-more-obsolete marketplace loser.
So don't get me wrong: The Trump presidency will be an absolute disaster for climate change. But with a bit of luck, the American solar industry might not be totally eviscerated.