Has the Virginia solar industry been impacted by Trump’s solar tariffs?
The Trump administration’s solar tariffs, which went into effect in January, are already having major repercussions for the solar sector in the United States. The tariffs have been the source of some controversy since they were announced in the summer of 2017 after multiple reports found that the tariffs would slow job growth in the sector and cause an estimated net reduction of 10 percent in solar installations.
Many of these concerns were substantiated on Monday when Reuters reported that over $2.5 billion in US solar projects have been shelved in 2018 as a result of the tariffs, as well as thousands of jobs. In Central Virginia however, the impact of the tariffs has been muted up to this point, but the future of solar in the state remains uncertain.
Chase Coble, project manager at Integrated Power Sources of Virginia, a Richmond-based solar installation company said that the tariffs have been a double-edged sword for the company. The company’s prices have increased slightly since the tariffs were put in place, but the media attention created by the solar tariffs caused a spike in residential installations this year that made up for the increase in the cost of solar modules.
Coble expressed concern that major energy providers have rolled back their investments in commercial solar projects this year, making commercial solar opportunities harder to come by and causing some doubt about the longevity of the company.
“Our greatest concern is the long game,” he said.
Barklie Estes, President of Nova Solar, a commercial and residential solar installation company based in Falls Church, said that the costs of Trump’s solar tariffs outweigh the benefits. The company purchased a large amount of solar modules before the tariffs were put into place in January this year as a precautionary measure, but according to Estes the price of the modules has evened out over the course of the year, and has recently returned to pre-tariff prices.
“I haven’t had to lay anyone off,” said Estes. “We’re still running at full capacity. Whether it would be busier without [the tariffs], that’s difficult to say.”
Sigora Solar, a Charlottesville-based solar company, employs 54 people between four locations in Virginia, and recently opened a branch in Richmond in Scott’s Addition. Marketing manager Madeleine Ray said that Sigora has been relatively unaffected by the Trump tariffs, and has not had to change their prices or lay off any of its employees.
“Solar, regardless of the tariffs, has been the fastest growing industry in the nation,” she said. “Really, at the end of the day, solar has not decreased in demand. It’s an incredible renewable energy, and it is still creating jobs.”
Virginia solar’s subdued reaction to the tariffs may be due to the rapid growth of the solar sector statewide over the last several years. The solar industry in Virginia experienced 10 percent growth in employment in 2017 and ranks 21st in the nation in solar jobs, employing over 3,500 people across the state. The number of solar jobs in Virginia surpassed that of the coal industry in 2017. The industry has been boosted by several major renewable energy efforts in the last year, including the 2017 Clean Energy Jobs tour headed by former governor Terry McAuliffe, who introduced plans to create a six megawatt solar farm in Danville, Virginia last spring.
It was also announced in January of this year that Utah-based Sustainable Power Group would begin construction on a 700,000 panel, 500-megawatt solar farm in Spotsylvania County. Tech behemoth Microsoft plans to make history by purchasing two-thirds of the power generated from that solar farm, the “single largest corporate purchase of solar energy ever in the United States.”
For the time being, the solar sector in Virginia is relatively stable, but momentum appears to have slowed in comparison with past years. The Solar Foundation, a non-profit organization that collects national census data for the solar industry, estimates that solar job growth in Virginia will grow only 1.5 percent in 2018, an 8.5 percent reduction from the previous year.
GTM Research, a clean energy research firm, released a report in January that predicted that the solar industry would largely be insulated from the tariffs in 2018 because solar companies would have time to prepare for them. According to the report however, 2019 is expected to be, “the most painful year for the utility-scale sector, with a 1.6-gigawatt decline in installations.” If these claims are accurate, then Virginia solar companies could expect some turbulence in the near future.
Photo By: Axios