The Trump administration recently announced new tariffs on solar panels. The solar industry is growing rapidly in the Lower 48, and it's gaining a foothold even in Alaska. But what the new trade policy means here depends on what part of the solar industry you’re involved in.
Workers shuttle in and out of Alaska all the time. Typically, that’s workers from Outside coming here to do a two week hitch on the North Slope, or fill seasonal positions in the summer. Kasilof native Harry Hagelund does it the other way around. He’s been an electrician for the better part of two decades, and when the state economy took a nosedive some years back, he branched out into solar.
“I finally took some of the offers that had been given to me and ended up down in Minnesota. I’ve just been chasing solar sites ever since. Making pretty good money, I’m able to pay the bills and feed my family. It’s actually been great.”
Installers have found steady, well-paying work across the Lower 48 as the industry has boomed. That’s been thanks, in part, to ever more affordable solar panels. Most of them come from Asia, and those panels are now subject to a 30 percent tariff.
The Trump administration announced the new policy earlier this month. The tariff is supposed to help domestic solar manufacturers, of which there are relatively few compared to China and southeast Asia. As soon as that news broke, Hagelund says he started trying to figure out what it would mean for an independent contractor like him.
“The immediate thing that I thought, of course, was how is this going to affect me and my family. It doesn’t sound good for people who are installing panels. It might produce a little bit of an uptick in the manufacturing portion of it, but it’s going to really slow things down as far as all of the electricians and solar installers all over the nation, which is a huge industry. It doesn’t really look good for them. I’m kind of worried about it.”
The tariff is on the books for at least the next four years. It’s a 30 percent charge the first year, falling by five percent each subsequent year. And the first 2.5 gigawatts of capacity are exempt.
Professional installers are nervous about what more expensive imported solar panels could mean for their future job prospects. But in Alaska, where big, utility-scale projects just aren’t feasible, the new trade policy isn’t expected to be such a drain.
Chris Pike is a research engineer at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. He says the panels themselves only make up about a third of the cost of a given project, and if it’s a relatively small one, say for an off-grid cabin, other savings can usually be found to offset that.
“This might be a slight blip, but overall I think you’re going to continue to see the price of installed systems go down. As Alaskan installers gain more experience installing these systems, they’ll be able to lower their labor costs, and that’s what we’ve seen in the Lower 48.”
To get a good picture of what the industry is like in Alaska, just look at where things were Outside about five years ago.
“When you look at the amount of solar that’s been installed, at least on the Railbelt, we’ve seen some pretty significant jumps just in the last year or two. And when you look at the net metering report that the different utilities hand over to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, it kind of verifies that," Pike said.
So, on the small scale, in the short term, this may not be that big a deal. Maybe it’s just all politics and posturing. But that’s little comfort when your job could be on the line. Hagelund says beyond simply worrying about his own paycheck, in our hyper-partisan, hyper-connected world, he’s also got to contend with friends who stand by the President.
“We’ve always been able to have interesting and lively debates about where our worldview is when it comes to geopolitics or whatever. This one’s been maybe a little too emotional for me because it hits a little closer to home. This is something that can actually affect my livelihood. So, yeah. It’s been kind of hard to hear some of their opinions, I’m not going to lie.”