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Editorial: Retaining tax credit for solar projects is vital to future of RiverBend factory

Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, has promoted his early support of Donald Trump’s candidacy as a great benefit for Western New York. He may soon have the chance to prove its worth.

The issue has to do with Buffalo’s SolarCity plant and Trump’s support of the fossil fuel industry and skepticism of what most scientists see as the fact of human-caused climate change. The plant’s success will rely to a great extent on the 30 percent federal investment tax credit on solar energy projects. Some fear that Trump may want to repeal it.

The tax credit was extended last year through the end of 2019. Repealing it would require the assent of Congress, which will remain in Republican control, and party members may be eager to follow Trump’s lead. Should the new president double down on his support for coal and other such industries, the solar tax credit could be imperiled and, with it, Buffalo’s hopes for a vibrant, durable high-tech economy.

It’s not certain that Trump will move against the tax credit, but there is reason to worry. He dismisses climate change as a hoax and has promised, somehow, to revive the coal industry. In addition, a number of experts say his economic plan, though still sketchy, is significantly out of balance. If it is, Trump may look for ways to cut costs and the tax credit could become an attractive target. That’s where Collins may have to demonstrate his influence.

The country cannot remain a prisoner of 19th and 20th century technology. It needs new and renewable sources of energy, and an important way of encouraging that is through tax incentives. They needn’t be – and shouldn’t be – permanent. Indeed, the solar tax credit is already scheduled to begin being phased out in 2020. That’s appropriate. Eventually, the solar industry has to function as independently as any other energy sector in American capitalist society.

For Buffalo, though, the credit is a lifeline to its future. State taxpayers have spent $750 million constructing the RiverBend plant in South Buffalo that will be home to the solar panel manufacturer. With it, and its research and development component, the plant stands to be a primary element in the Western New York economy for decades to come, helping revive a long-dormant city made up of just the kind of people Trump has said he wants to help: working-class Americans.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., is the area’s other line of defense against any effort to repeal the credit. Soon to be Senate minority leader, he will have great influence in Congress and needs to have this matter on his radar. But Collins is first in line. Here’s hoping his clout doesn’t need to be tested in this way, but if it does, it will be an acid test.

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