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Here Is One Powerful Way the U.S. Could Boost Solar Adoption

A new report suggests that playing nice with China could be the key to success.

Harnessing the Sun’s power may require concerted international coöperation.

Solar installations have soared in the U.S. of late, with 14,626 megawatts worth of photovoltaic hardware going online in 2016—a 95 percent increase in installations year-on-year. But despite the clamor to put panels on roofs, solar still only accounts for around 1 percent of total electricity generation in America.

Given that gas and coal power stations create around two-thirds of the nation’s electricity, there’s still a ways to go before solar makes a big impression. The question is, then, how might it be possible to expand its adoption even more swiftly?

A new report from Stanford University explains one way in which policy changes could help make solar cheap enough to become far more pervasive. But unlike many analyses, the main thrust of its argument isn’t about subsidies or incentives—it’s to do with how America could act on the world stage.

China rules the roost when it comes to producing solar cells, making 70 percent of the global supply compared to America's 1 percent. That doesn't sit well with the U.S. government, so the current approach is to impose tariffs on Chinese solar hardware entering the country in an attempt to discourage people from purchasing foreign hardware and spur the adoption of domestic systems.

But, the new report notes, Chinese firms have simply started manufacturing products elsewhere to circumvent the regulations. And China begun applying its own tariffs on U.S. polysilicon, which is used to make solar panels, when it enters the nation. So the measures only serve to increase costs, which can in turn harm adoption.

In a New York Times op-ed tied to the report, Jeffrey Ball and Dan Reicher suggest that the U.S. should instead “play to its comparative advantages,” following a “a sober assessment of what China does well.” In other words, America should invest in research and incentives for deployment, while leveraging China’s manufacturing abilities, to lower costs and increase adoption.

It sounds like an idea that could work—if your goal is to encourage solar usage. Sadly, it's unlikely to sit well with President Trump, who is keen to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. and has praised tariffs against China. If the Stanford report is correct in its analysis, then, the U.S. may struggle to push solar to its limits.

(Read more: The New Solar System, The New York Times, “Solar Installations Soared in the U.S. in 2016,” “Manufacturing Jobs Aren’t Coming Back,” “Competing with the Chinese Factory of 2017”)

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