Biden Breaks Solar Logjam: ReBooting Build Back Better?

June 6, 2022

Associated Press:

President Joe Biden ordered emergency measures Monday to boost crucial supplies to U.S. solar manufacturers and declared a two-year tariff exemption on solar panels from Southeast Asia as he attempted to jumpstart progress toward his climate change-fighting goals.

His invoking of the Defense Production Act and his other executive actions come amid complaints by industry groups that the solar sector is being slowed by supply chain problems due to a Commerce Department inquiry into possible trade violations involving Chinese products. Word of the White House’s actions caused solar energy companies to gain ground on Wall Street. 

The Commerce Department announced in March that it was scrutinizing imports of solar panels from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia, concerned that products from those countries are skirting U.S. anti-dumping rules that limit imports from China.

Asked at the White House if Biden’s pause in tariffs was not a gift to China, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said he was invoking the Defense Production Act, “to make sure that he’s delivering for the American people.”

“He is putting the full force of the federal government behind supporting American clean energy producers,” Jean-Pierre said.

NPR:

In an effort to speed up that growth even more, Biden is also invoking the Defense Production Act to help expand American solar panel manufacturing, as well as other clean energy technology like building insulation, efficient heat pumps for buildings, equipment for fuel cells and power grid infrastructure like transformers. The president is also directing the federal government to increase the amount of U.S.-made solar panels and clean technology products it buys, as well.

If production ramps up as expected, the administration expects domestic solar manufacturing to triple by 2024. “Enough,” said the administration official, “to enable more than 3.3 million homes per year to switch to solar energy.”

White House Press Release:

Today, President Biden is authorizing the use of the Defense Production Act (DPA) to accelerate domestic production of clean energy technologies – unlocking new powers to meet this moment. Specifically, the President is authorizing the Department of Energy to use the DPA to rapidly expand American manufacturing of five critical clean energy technologies:

  • Solar panel parts like photovoltaic modules and module components;
  • Building insulation;
  • Heat pumps, which heat and cool buildings super efficiently;
  • Equipment for making and using clean electricity-generated fuels, including electrolyzers, fuel cells, and related platinum group metals; and
  • Critical power grid infrastructure like transformers.

In deploying the DPA, the Biden-Harris Administration will strongly encourage the use of strong labor standards, including project labor agreements and community benefits agreements that offer wages at or above the prevailing rate and include local hire provisions. The Administration also will strongly encourage projects with environmental justice outcomes that empower the clean energy transition in low-income communities historically overburdened by legacy pollution.

Following this announcement, the White House and the Department of Energy will convene relevant industry, labor, environmental justice, and other key stakeholders as we maximize the impact of the DPA tools made available by President Biden’s actions and strengthen domestic clean energy manufacturing.

Bill McKibben on Substack:

Earlier today, President Biden signed the above order, which mandates the use of the 1950 Defense Production Act to sput the production of heat pumps, because, as he puts it in the text, “ensuring a robust, resilient, and sustainable domestic industrial base to meet the requirements of the clean energy economy is essential to our national security, a resilient energy sector, and the preservation of domestic critical infrastructure.”

Readers of this newsletter played a big role in making this happen. I broached the idea here on February 27, 3 days after the Ukraine invasion, in an article called Heat Pumps for Peace and Freedom. Within a couple of days, a group called Rewiring America had fleshed out the plan, and Third Act had begun to push it out across the country, getting older Americans to write letters by the score. Between you all, the effort paid off. Biden’s order isn’t precisely what we’d called for, since the heat pumps are destined for U.S. homes instead of European ones—but that may well be more politically palatable, and in any event, as we’ve pointed out over and over, oil is a global market. If we can suppress demand here by giving people efficient technology, it will help drive down the windfall that rising oil prices have provided Putin. 

In any event, three cheers

One is for the Biden administration, which has done something admirable. I was talking to a Wall Street Journal reporter over the weekend, lamenting that Manchin had managed to bottle up the Biden climate program—this is a sign that the president’s team is finally uncorking that bottle. And they did it quickly—late February to early June is unprecedented speed in DC time.

A second is for Substack. As with most platforms, this one can be used for unpleasant infighting. But it also allows people to surface plans and ideas before they’re fully formed and vetted. If I had proposed that piece to some editor, they might well have said: ‘does anyone else care about this?” Which is the kind of smart and useful question that makes one happy to have editors. But sometimes it’s useful to be able to just get something out fast so that others can begin to react: if traditional journalism is the first draft of history, Substack in this fashion serves as the sketchbook for that first draft. 

And the third cheer is for all of you. Ideas do absolutely no good unless lots of people get behind them and make noise. That’s what movements are—people making impossible things possible. I’m immensely grateful to everyone who wrote and pestered their politicians about this; it worked. 

This single measure obviously doesn’t solve our problems, in Russia or in the atmosphere. But it’s a hopeful sign that we can still get something done. Stay tuned.

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