February 21st, 2018


E.T. Grether Professor, Haas School of Business, University of California

CEO and Co-founder, Generate Capital

CEO, Sunrun


The price of solar power has declined dramatically in recent years. That’s good news for homeowners, the environment and the economy.

“The cheapest way to solve emissions is energy efficiency,” says Scott Jacobs of the investment firm Generate Capital.  “It's also the largest job creator in all of the energy sector.”

Renewable power now accounts for the lion’s share of new electrical generation around the world. Even Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, the world’s largest oil producer, is considering investing billions to become a renewable energy powerhouse.

But earlier this year, the United States slapped a thirty percent tariff on imported solar panels – a move that could cost thousands of American jobs and billions of dollars in future solar investments.

“There's no question, this is a policy that was designed to make renewables more expensive because it doesn't make any economic sense beyond that,” says Severin Borenstein of the University of California Berkeley.

Will this move put the brakes on what looked like a promising trend towards greener energy? Not necessarily.

“The fact is that solar is continuing to come down in cost,” Borenstein says. “And so even as [the tariff] is going to push up the cost, it isn't going to make a huge difference in the economics of solar panels.”

Lynn Jurich, CEO of the solar power installation company Sunrun agrees. While some jobs may be lost in the installation, financing and selling of imported tiles, manufacturing will see a boost in employment.  She is confident that individual states such as California will rally to keep the manufacturing pipeline flowing.

“We've seen happen in the past when there are these policies that are so wildly unpopular and so against what the people want,” she says.  “The states come in and step up, similar to what they did when we pulled out of Paris.”

“So counterintuitively, this could be a positive.”

While Jurich advocates for individual rooftop panels for homeowners, Borenstein favors a centralized grid system.

“When you look at the price difference between grid scale solar and wind and rooftop solar, the difference between grid scale and rooftop is massively larger than the benefits of putting on rooftop,” he maintains.

“We are all on the same page that we have to be moving towards reducing greenhouse gases…but I worry that what we’re doing by emphasizing rooftop solar is raising the cost of moving away from fossil fuels, which is what we need to do.”

Some communities have found a solution that combines the best of both worlds.

“Community solar is a great opportunity for us to bring solar energy to consumers who can't put it on their rooftops and who can't maybe choose it from their utility,” says Scott Jacobs, referring to ‘solar gardens’ in places like Minnesota.

“What we’re seeing is a big surge of demand from consumers who live in places like apartments who can't control what's on the rooftop but would like to participate in the solar revolution.”

If you’re a homeowner who’s ready to go solar, whether buying or leasing, the panelists recommend doing your homework: get several price quotes, and be sure that the company guarantees to deliver the promised amount of power.

We need look no further than Puerto Rico for a solar success story.  Last fall, Hurricane Maria devastated the island’s electrical grid, leaving its residents without power for months.

“Sixty days in after the hurricane hit, the majority of the island [was still] without power, including fire stations,” Jurich relates. More than half of the ninety-five fire stations could not receive 911 calls or communicate with their communities.

“We came in there within one day,” she says with pride. “We built a system of rooftop solar plus a battery, and were able to get those fire stations up and running.”

Related Links:

How the U.S. tariff will impact prices in 2018 (Energy Sage)

Trump’s solar tariffs are clouding the industry’s future (NYTimes)

Community and shared solar (DOE)

Solar competitors band together to bring electricity to Puerto Rico (CNBC)

– Anny Celsi