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Editorial: Washington needs to stop blocking advances in renewable energy

It’s difficult to tell exactly how dangerous two Washington proposals are to Buffalo’s fledgling solar power industry, but the Western New York congressional delegation would be wise to consider them both high voltage.

The riskier one is a proposed tariff and other import restrictions on cheap overseas panels, but the other is troubling, as well. It would bolster coal and uranium plants at the expense of renewable sources. The area’s congressmen and the state’s senators need to ensure that government policy doesn’t cloud the future of solar energy, Buffalo’s new industry of the future.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the U.S. solar power industry opposes trade restrictions on imports from low-cost overseas competitors. Industry leaders here generally fear any tariff that could drive up the price of panels, thus defeating an industry advantage over more costly coal and nuclear plants. That’s the specific objection. More generally, tariffs distort markets and carry long-term consequences that are usually – though not always – best avoided.

The issue arises following an October vote by the U.S. International Trade Commission to support such tariffs in a bid to protect domestic solar companies from cheap solar panels produced overseas. President Trump is expected to decide the matter by Jan. 26.

Without question, government policy needs to support the development of renewable energy sources, including solar and wind. The question is how best to achieve that. When mainstays of the solar industry say tariffs would cause more problems than they solve, government needs to listen.

Among those who need to be sure the Trump administration’s ears are open are Republican Reps. Chris Collins and Tom Reed, along with Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins and Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

They should similarly question the proposal to reward facilities capable of maintaining a 90-day supply of fuel on hand, meaning coal and nuclear plants. The purported idea is to ensure a consistent supply of power, as wind and solar cannot currently do.

But critics see it as a backdoor way for the Trump administration to bolster the coal industry, as he unwisely promised in his presidential campaign. That could make renewable energy less competitive and would contradict federal policies going back to the 1990s.

It’s not that Washington shouldn’t be concerned about residents of states such as Kentucky and West Virginia, which have long relied on a coal-based economy. It should. People there are worried, and for good reason.

But as the climate changes and renewable energy becomes increasingly important – both to the world and to U.S. national security – Washington needs to help those areas transition to modern, future-based economies. That’s the bet that Albany placed here, with the RiverBend project.

Even with tax and trade advantages, coal’s future is already written. It won’t come back, just as steel never came back in Buffalo and other parts of the Rust Belt. Economic security must be in the future, not the past. Washington and state governments should be working to point in that direction.

The decision on this issue is scheduled for Wednesday. The region’s federal delegation needs to ensure that its voice is heard on this, as on the tariff issue. The nation is at a watershed time in its energy sector. It’s plainly too early simply to abandon fossil fuels, but it’s also too late to prop them up at the expense of renewables.

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