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Energy secretary talks U.S. plan to boost solar production


This week, the Biden administration announced a series of actions to reignite the country's solar energy industry. The president waived tariffs for two years on solar imports from four Asian countries. He also invoked the Defense Production Act to boost American solar panel manufacturing and other clean energy technologies. The administration says it can triple solar energy manufacturing in the U.S. by 2024. To talk more about the administration's plans, we're joined by U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. Secretary Granholm, welcome to All Things Considered.

JENNIFER GRANHOLM: Thanks so much for having me on.

THOMPSON: What would such a rapid expansion of solar energy manufacturing mean for consumers in the U.S.?

GRANHOLM: Actually, it would bring down the prices significantly. Solar right now is about half the cost in most places of natural gas. It's about 40% of the cost and - even if you include storage attached to solar, meaning you want to be able to store the solar power when the sun isn't shining so that you can dispatch it when you need need to have it. So bottom line is that clean energy, renewable energy is in most places the cheapest form of energy. And ultimately, that would be passed down to consumers.

THOMPSON: So the million-dollar question, will this lower gas prices?

GRANHOLM: Well, we move away - I would say this. We clearly want to be in a place to manufacture our own clean energy in this country. Solar, of course, is for electricity and electricity, it powers electric vehicles, for example, but it doesn't produce gasoline. Gasoline, of course, is produced by oil, which is sold on a global market. What the president is doing on that, though, is really important. The fact that he is releasing 1 million barrels per day of oil from our Strategic Petroleum Reserve to add more supply of oil onto the global market is very important. But more needs to be done, obviously, because Russia, as it trades its oil on a global market when all of these countries like the United States and Europe say that they're not going to buy Russian oil, that means that supply is pulled off of the global market. And we have to increase by another million or more barrels per day to make up for the loss of those Russian barrels.

THOMPSON: Given the widespread supply chain issues we're seeing right now, how does the administration plan to increase solar production while there are so many other manufacturers who are struggling to meet current demands?

GRANHOLM: Yeah. We want to make sure that we are manufacturing in the United States. It's one of the reasons why the President has invoked the Defense Production Act and is asking Congress to fund that so that we can build domestic manufactured solar panels. Largely, solar panels are manufactured now in Asia. We used to have a much bigger supply chain of solar, and that was big-footed, if you will, by largely China that came in and really has cornered the market on solar panels. But the president has called for Congress to also pass the CHIPS Act, which would increase the amount of semiconductors built in the United States. His whole effort is on building supply chains in the U.S., both for clean energy, but also for other products, including electric vehicles.

THOMPSON: So I think I'd be remiss if I didn't come back to this question. As you know, a federal investigation is examining whether China - speaking of China - whether China is skirting U.S. tariffs by routing its solar panels to other countries. But President Biden just gave the solar industry a break from tariffs on imports from those countries, worried that the effects of the investigation has put too much uncertainty into the market and stalled hundreds of projects across the U.S. Doesn't that run counter to the goal of boosting the competitiveness of American manufacturers?

GRANHOLM: No. This is exactly why the president has invoked the Defense Production Act, which means that we would be supporting the building up of that solar supply chain in the United States. He's also called for Congress to pass the Solar Energy Manufacturing Act, which would provide tax credits for the manufacture of those solar panels in the U.S. The investigation that you refer to will continue on, and the findings will be what the findings are. But what he has asked for is a two-year bridge period so that we can get solar panels installed even as we build up our domestic supply chain for solar panels.

THOMPSON: I think maybe or maybe not, you'll readily acknowledge that the steps Biden, the president, can take on his own without Congress won't get the U.S. over the line. So why use the Defense Production Act now and not a year ago?

GRANHOLM: Well, first of all, we have seen what has been happening, that there has been a significant reduction in imports of solar panels. And we want to make sure that we continue to install solar panels in the United States. So the first quarter of this year, we saw a significant reduction. We also saw that we need to add capacity to our electricity grid to be able to ensure we've got the means to get through these, you know, electricity-intensive months to come, not just this summer, but also through next year. The demand for electricity will continue to grow. So he declared an emergency so that we can continue to add that clean electricity to the grid even as that solar investigation goes on.

THOMPSON: U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, thanks so much for being with us.

GRANHOLM: You bet. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.