Op-Ed: Cracking down on foreign-made solar panels would make U.S. less secure

Source: By Norman R. Seip, Washongton Post • Posted: Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The United States could impose tariffs on foreign-made solar panels. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

President Trump has long vowed to make the U.S. military stronger than ever before. He now has an opportunity to do exactly that.

The U.S. International Trade Commission is proposing tariffs on imported solar energy panels for Trump to approve. That may be tempting for the president, who has put forth an “America First Energy Plan” and could see tariffs as a way to enact it. But it would be a grave mistake — one that would hurt our national security, cost veterans their jobs and increase power bills for everyday Americans.

The U.S. military depends on a diverse set of energy resources, and increasingly that includes solar energy. Over the past seven years, the price of solar has dropped by 70 percent, giving our military a cost-effective, reliable, flexible source of electricity for its operations. The tariffs proposed would significantly raise the cost of solar energy, jeopardizing the financial viability of solar projects at U.S. military bases across the globe and threatening our long-term security interests.

Make no mistake: Tariffs would directly harm U.S. national security and needlessly put the lives of American troops at risk.

As a commander in the U.S. Air Force, I saw firsthand how energy affects America’s national security. The military is our country’s single largest energy consumer. Energy is vital to every part of our mission. And when the military is forced to rely on a single source of fuel to power its global operations, the consequences can, quite literally, be devastating.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, we relied on oil to power almost every part of our forward operating bases. It came at a high cost, both in money and in lives. Transporting fuel to our bases, many of which are in remote regions, requires convoys to navigate dangerous supply routes, and for our military to deploy troops to protect them. Between 2003 and 2007, more than 3,000 Americans died or were injured protecting these convoys.

When he was commander of U.S. Central Command in 2004, Jim Mattis called on the agency he now leads to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.” Mattis was right when he said that then, and it’s still true today. I am agnostic to what fuel the military uses, so long as it doesn’t put Americans at risk.

The military also needs reliable energy. Here in the United States, military bases often serve as emergency response centers, like they did for communities in Florida and Texas that were hit by hurricanes this fall. We cannot afford to have power in these facilities go out for sustained periods. But too often, it does. In fiscal 2016 alone, the Defense Department reported 701 power outages on military installations that lasted eight hours or longer. The majority of these were a result of grid disruptions that would not have happened with solar.

Meanwhile, the price volatility of traditional fuels makes it difficult for our military to efficiently budget and plan. With an energy bill totaling $4 billion, price shocks can have a serious effect on the Defense Department’s budget.

The real price we pay for our nation’s energy is even higher: Maintaining stability in regions where fossil fuels, especially, come from requires significant resources. The president seems to recognize this, which is why he and several of his predecessors have sought to boost U.S. energy independence.

Solar energy is already helping with that. I joined the Air Force in 1974, and in the years since, I have seen how a broader array of energy options, including solar, have transformed the military’s operations. Forward operating bases are using portable solar arrays to power lighting systems and computers. On missions in the field, soldiers are now using solar-powered tarps to keep electronics charged. If the U.S. solar market shrinks, so will the investment that is bringing these innovations to our troops.

The military is installing renewable energy on its facilities at a record pace, nearly tripling its number of renewable projects to 1,390 between 2011 and 2015. This is helping the military better meet its mission and saving the government and taxpayers significant money. The Navy and the Marine Corps, for instance, are receiving power from a massive solar farm in the Arizona desert that will save up to $400 million on utility bills over 25 years.

The two solar companies, foreign-owned but based in Georgia and Oregon, that brought this case to the ITC say thattariffs will help revive U.S. manufacturing — another goal of the president’s. And indeed, tariffs might help these two companies. But it would be at the expense of so much more — our security, the planet and the broader solar industry, one of the nation’s fastest-growing sectors.

Solar energy created one out of every 50 jobs in the United States last year. The sector employs 260,000 American workers, including 23,303 veterans. Several bases also are continuing an Energy Department program, Solar Ready Vets, that is connecting our nation’s highly skilled veterans to solar industry jobs. With tariffs, tens of thousands of these solar workers, including many veterans, will lose their job within months. The impact will continue for years.

The president wants to put America first. Here’s his opportunity. He should reject tariffs that would endanger our troops and harm national security, and instead support our military and veterans by giving them the diversity of energy resources and jobs they need.

Norman R. Seip, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general, is the former commander of the 12th Air Force, where he had responsibility for 18,800 personnel and more than 200 aircraft. He is part of Operation Free, a bipartisan coalition for clean energy to reduce the military’s reliance on oil.