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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Sanders Promotes Domestic Solar Industry, But Warns Against Trade Restrictions

Sen. Bernie Sanders visited a solar testing center in Williston on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017.
Taylor Dobbs
Sen. Bernie Sanders visited a solar testing center in Williston on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017.

As the Trump administration works to undo regulations in place intended to slow global climate change, Sen. Bernie Sanders is calling for further investment in U.S. renewable energy efforts.  

“Despite what President Trump and his administration may think, climate change is real, climate change is caused by human activity, climate change is already causing devastating problems in our country and around the world,” Sanders said. “Just ask the people of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Texas or Florida, who have experienced enormous damage due to recent ferocious storms that were exacerbated by warmer air holding more water vapor.”

Sanders made the remarks while visiting a test site in Williston that is one of five solar “Regional Test Centers” in the country, but the only one located in a northern climate. The test centers are designed to give extremely accurate scientific data about solar generation. By testing different technologies and solar panel configurations, researchers hope to help find new ways to develop and use solar energy.

Sanders said the test center is an important example of the federal government working to support the renewable energy industry.

“The solar sector employs a quarter-million people in this country – more than Apple, Google and Facebook combined – and the potential for additional job growth is huge,” Sanders said. Federal investment in the research happening at the Williston site will help add even more jobs, Sanders said.

But a federal trade ruling from the International Trade Commission could have the reverse effect, Sanders said. If the commission rules to impose an import tariff on foreign-manufactured solar panels, Sanders said, it would hurt the domestic solar market even if it gave U.S. manufacturers a competitive edge.

“The initial analysis suggests that that would cost of a whole lot of jobs; it would raise the cost of solar in this country meaning that there would be far fewer people installing solar,” he said. “So the job here [at the test center] is in fact to increase U.S. manufacturing of solar. That is what I want to see, and there are ways to do that. But to simply impose a very significant tariff that would slow down substantially what the solar industry is now accomplishing, which would lead to great layoffs in terms of the number of workers in solar, does not make sense to me.”

Sanders said some of the U.S.-built technologies in use at the Williston test site show promise for the future of the solar industry. Sandia National Laboratories – one of 17 national labs funded by the Department of Energy – is responsible for the test centers, and Laurie Burnham serves as project manager.

Burnham told Sanders about “bifacial” solar panels, meaning the panels can generate electricity from light shining on either side of the panel.

Traditional “monofacial” solar panels tend to be most efficient when facing south, to get the most sun exposure throughout the day, but Burnham says a west-facing bifacial panel can produce more energy than a south-facing one.

“The west-facing bifacial modules that are vertical produce more energy than any other of those orientations of bifacial modules, and it’s because they capture the sun on the back side in the morning, and they capture the sun in the afternoon,” Burnham said, “so those are two humps of energy output for them, and overall that’s far more energy production than you get from any of the other orientations there.”

Burnham said bifacial solar technology could be especially useful in northern climates, where sunlight reflecting off winter snow could become a significant source of energy. Traditional solar panels, using light only from above, do not harness energy of sunlight reflecting off the ground.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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