Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Solar tariffs, amphibious homes, & endangered baby whales

While reporting in the South throughout the last year, I’ve noticed a palpable excitement about solar energy from a diverse array of people: mayors of small Tennessee towns; veteran city council members in Jackson, Mississippi; young startup founders in Appalachia; racial justice activists in Alabama. Whether they’re avid environmentalists or right-wing conservatives, news junkies or still doubting the scientific consensus on climate change, a surprising amount of people agree on one thing: solar makes economic sense.

That’s why it was a bit of a gut punch to hear about President Trump’s decision to puttariffs on imported solar cells and modules. The tariff starts at 30 percent in 2019 and falls by 5 percent a year, ending at 15 percent by 2022. Each year, the first 2.5 gigawatts of imported solar cells will be exempted from the tariff. 

This decision has been a long time coming. U.S.-based solar manufacturers Suniva and SolarWorld Americas filed a petition with the U.S. International Trade Commission last year, arguing that imports were harming the U.S. solar industry. The ITC issued issued recommendations, including one for a tariff. The solar industry at large has been denouncing it for months.

Analysts say Trump’s move isn’t as bad as it could have been, but it’s still likely to impact the booming solar industry. About 95 percent of panels used in the U.S. are imported from countries like Malaysia and South Korea, The New York Times reports. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates the tariffs will cost the U.S. solar industry 23,000 jobs. About 38,000 of the industry’s quarter of a million jobs are in manufacturing, but only about 2,000 jobs involve manufacturing cells or panels.

Several Southern states—particularly Florida, Texas, and South Carolina— will be disproportionately impacted by the tariffs because they are some of the biggest emerging solar markets, according to Greentech Media. But they’re not the only ones in the region with a lot to lose: North Carolina has the second-largest solar market in the U.S. behind California, and Georgia added more than 1 gigawatt of solar capacity to its portfolio in 2016. Alabama and Mississippi are quickly growing their solar industries as well, research shows. These tariffs could throttle the region’s growth and prolong its use of fossil fuels.

Solar has expanded so rapidly because of the steady, drastic drop in the cost of solar panels and cells. Many solar farms across the country, like this North Carolina project, import cheap solar cells from Asian countries and make the rest of the components in the U.S., where manufacturers and developers employ local designers and installers.

It’s impossible to count the number of times I’ve been told by people that the reason they’re investing in solar is because it’s “so cheap.” Many of them never utter the phrases “climate change” or “carbon emissions.” Still, quite a few renewable energy companies in the South—and in other conservative states across the country—have built their business models with those exact consumers in mind. 

Republicans in South Carolina, like many other members of the GOP across the country, lobbied hard against the solar tariffs, worried that it would cost their states well-paying jobs. Although the president says the tariffs will increase job growth in the U.S., researchshows it will curb solar installations, especially for larger-scale utility projects. 

And yet, some states are doubling down on Trump’s decision. A Kentucky lawmakerintroduced a bill this week that would slash the amount of money residential solar customers can get from utilities for generating electricity they don’t need. The state has a tiny solar footprint, and this could slow down its growth even more.

These days, everything is so divisive and partisan, it’s difficult to find an issue where people can find some sort of common ground. Perhaps the most important aspect of the recent solar boom, aside from the environmental and job benefits, is that it built a bridge—however shaky—between both sides of the aisle. Renewable energy is not the solution to staving off climate change, nor are the markets in Southern states growing so fast that the industry would make a significant short-term impact on energy portfolios. But the window was cracked open, and now it could close again. It’s a shame to think that the Trump administration’s decision will likely backfire on the people, places, and local economies that stand to gain the most from this industry. 

Stories worth your time

Griffin Park is a federal housing project in Orlando, Florida, surrounded by two major highways. Its residents, who are mostly black, suffer from health problems because of the noxious fumes inside and outside their homes. Huffington Post has a multimedia package on the people who have had to live in these conditions for years.

The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana—which is almost completely underwater—are some of the nation’s first climate refugees. CityLab looks at a government program to resettle them, and how it could provide a blueprint for climate refugees in the future. From the story: “Even if humanity were to stop all carbon emissions today, at least 414 towns, villages, and cities across the country would face relocation.”

After New Orleans residents were told to elevate their homes post-Hurricane Katrina, professor Elizabeth English worried that putting houses on stilts would ruin people’s sense of community, making it difficult for them to chat with neighbors. So she built a model for an amphibious home with a flood tank that pumps in water straight from the Mississippi River. Since then, she and her colleagues have designed these types of homes for low-income, flooded regions in Nicaragua and Jamaica, The New Yorker reports, and have consulted with indigenous communities in Canada and Louisiana.

News flying under the radar

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted permission to Dominion Energyto begin tree felling along the route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in West Virginia and Virginia. The company says it will only be done on properties where agreements have been reached with landowners.

Governors of Atlantic Coast states are still waiting for their meetings with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who removed Florida from the agency’s offshore drilling planafter he spoke to Republican Gov. Rick Scott. But an Interior official says that drilling off Florida coasts is still on table.

Scientists watching for baby right whales off the Southeast coast were concerned after failing to spot any newborn seven weeks into the endangered species’ calving season, but recently saw one off the coast of Florida. Bad weather could be to blame, but NOAA warned that the whale species could face extinction without new protective actions. In other wildlife news, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared the eastern cougar extinct.