Solar: We need it cheap, but we want it American

If you want a quick lesson on the funhouse mirror that is the world of solar energy economics, look no further than the trade complaint against the Chinese solar industry filed with the Obama Administration by the American solar industry.  china industry graphic

Seven U.S. solar panel manufacturers claim the Chinese government and solar industry are dumping cut-price solar panels in the American market. Dumping claims are as common as flies in international trade, but dumping solar panels has larger implications than dumping consumer electronics or agricultural products. The U.S. needs a domestic solar manufacturing industry. We can’t trade energy dependency on one imported commodity – oil – for dependency on imported solar panels. At the same time, the U.S. also needs market-rate solar power. As this case shows, those two are mutually exclusive as the game is being played right now. Here’s the basic economic and political arithmetic that makes solar such a hairball:

1.) Solar energy = Too expensive

2.) Cheaper solar panels = Cheaper solar power

3.) Chinese solar panel prices < American solar panel prices

4.) Chinese solar panels = Cheaper solar power

5.) Chinese solar panels ≠ America solar manufacturing jobs

Different people will identify different root causes of this problem, and most of them go right back to China. I tend to agree up to a point. The Chinese government’s solar policies – stated and implicit – will lead to Chinese dominance of solar markets on every continent they care to play in. The Chinese, recognizing solar energy’s long-term importance, are developing a deep solar manufacturing base in their country. They offer capital equipment financing, land and facility leases for little or nothing. Like it or not, they’re writing the rules of the game. We encountered the same thing with Japan in the 1980s when the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) targeted key industries for Japanese dominance. They bent trade policies and funneled money toward companies to further their goals, and succeeded in areas like cars and consumer electronics.

The problem isn’t that China is stacking the deck, it’s that the U.S. won’t even sit at the table. With its traditional skepticism toward government economic planning, the U.S. has no integrated government-industry policy to build a solar manufacturing base. So we’re not going to get one, and if we think we are, then we’re delusional. The Chinese are writing the rules of the game and they’re winning by making long-term investments in a manufacturing infrastructure. The U.S. has to do the same. We can’t compete if we’re not in the game, and right now we’re playing checkers while everyone else is playing chess.

‘Zero Waste,’ but plenty of gumption!

Karina Quintans tipped the trash can toward her and looked inside: paper coffee cups, tin foil, fast food sacks and, curiously, the pruned leaves of somebody’s indoor plant. At least 80 percent of the trash in this can – clearly labeled “landfill” – was suitable for a second can a few inches to its left, the one labeled “recycling.”

We may not get our waste in the right hole, but at least now, thanks to Quintans and her friends, if you stroll the downtown area of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, you have a 50-50 chance. Until Sept. 27, you had only one option: landfill.

In a civic climate where most of us wait for the government to act, or deride it for failing to, Quintans and her grassroots group “Zero Waste Portsmouth” planned, financed, created and installed five sturdy recycling bins here in downtown Portsmouth, home of the CleanSpeak blog. Each bin has a recycling hole and a landfill hole, the latter label chosen because it describes the ugly reality of waste disposal.

Before the forklifts set those bins in place, when you visited the Port City you either stuffed your recyclables in your pockets until you got home, pirated one of the cafes’ recycling buckets, or most likely, dropped them in the trash can, sending them on a one-way trip to the landfill.

The remarkable thing is that Zero Waste Portsmouth didn’t wait for the city. Although we have curbside residential recycling, downtown street-level recycling wasn’t going into the municipal budget anytime soon. So ZWP drove the project themselves, rounding up volunteers, corporate patrons, some grant money, and some student artistic talent to make these bins a reality. The city will take over from here. Hopefully, collection costs will be offset by avoided landfill costs together with the hard-to-quantify environmental benefit.

Before the bins came, 44 percent of the city’s waste was still going to the landfill, according to Quintans, director of Zero Waste Portsmouth. Twenty-two percent was being recycled. (The rest was yard waste, concrete, bulky, etc.). The downtown area alone was sending 20 tons of trash to the landfill every year.

Zero Waste Portsmouth has an ambitious goal: living up to its name and making the landfill obsolete. As communications professionals, we love this name because what it lacks in immediate viability it makes up for in inspiration.

Admittedly, zero waste is ZWP’s long-term goal. Cutting the landfill-bound portion in half is a shorter-term one. A great first step? Just getting stuff in the right hole.

Meet Quintans and learn more about the project: