Ex-Trump aide was overruled on solar tariffs

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, April 23, 2018

President Trump’s former energy adviser suggested yesterday that Trump’s contentious solar tariffs won’t likely achieve the president’s desired outcome.

George David Banks, who left the White House in February, said Trump’s tariffs wouldn’t make the U.S. solar industry more competitive globally. He spoke at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs’ Center on Global Energy Policy, which he joined this week as an adjunct research scholar.

Banks said that he and chief domestic energy adviser Mike Catanzaro discussed the idea of slapping tariffs on solar equipment imports before Trump made his move in January. But they thought it was unlikely to have the desired effect.

“I think where we came out was ‘well, this 201 piece is a really, really small slice,” Banks said, referring to the 30 percent import tariffs the administration has placed on imported cells and modules, which are aimed at combating China’s dominance in the sector. The tariffs are written under Section 201 of the 1974 Trade Act and are aimed at giving U.S. manufacturers a chance to compete.

“And it’s really focused on technologies that if they’re not antiquated, they’re going to become quickly antiquated,” he said.

Banks said yesterday that while he agreed with the White House’s take that competitiveness in solar is in the U.S. strategic interest, he saw the domestic industry’s future to be in developing next-generation technologies rather than competing on old ones.

Given the January decision, he said, “you can figure out exactly how much weight went into that.”

Banks shared the stage with Tom Werner, president and CEO of SunPower Corp., which Wednesday announced plans to purchase SolarWorld Americas, one of the two U.S. solar manufacturers that originally requested the tariffs (E&E News PM, April 18).

SunPower manufactures most of its equipment abroad in Malaysia, Mexico and the Philippines, and Werner acknowledged it purchased Oregon-based SolarWorld Americas to get around the tariffs.

“It’s better to swim with the current than against the current,” Werner said.

His company is still hoping to qualify for an exemption to the tariff, which he said could soon cost it $2 million a week that it would rather spend on research and development, which it does in the United States.

Banks argued that innovation was as much a part of the Trump “energy dominance” credo as resource extraction and marketing. But Cameron Hepburn from Oxford University, who shared the dais with Banks, noted that the Trump administration in its fiscal 2018 budget blueprint had abandoned an Obama-era pledge to join with other countries in doubling its R&D spending for advanced energy technologies between 2015 and 2020.

The U.S. commitment to Mission Innovation would have required $12.8 billion in advanced energy spending by 2020, mostly at the Energy Department. But Trump’s fiscal 2018 and 2019 budget proposals both cut accounts that would have made good on that commitment. These range from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to DOE’s Office of Science to expenditures for nuclear, renewable energy and batteries.

Banks acknowledged “flaws,” at least in the 2018 budget but said they’d be ironed out as the administration had more time to reconcile Trump’s competing imperatives of growing the defense budget while keeping the federal budget under control.

Banks also re-upped his public praise for the Paris climate agreement, a stance that he said had “exploded” the heads of some of his administration colleagues when they first saw it in print.

Banks has said that the bottom-up, largely voluntary architecture of Paris — which covers all parties with the same force — is “a good Republican agreement” that past GOP administrations would have accepted.

The Obama administration team that clinched the 2015 accord “probably negotiated the best framework they could get,” he said. But he made it clear that he approved the deal, not the Obama-era pledge to cut emissions between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 by 2025.