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Monday, 18 June 2018 07:54

How Many Americans Will Die Because of Trump's Solar Tariffs?

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Solar 0618wrp(Photo: ShinyPhotoScotland / Flickr)


Americans are concerned that the ongoing trade war with China (and now our allies in Europe and Canada) will hurt the US economy. Trump's tariffs have already scared investors and threatened our retirement accounts, but less obviously, tariffs can also indirectly kill us.

The rapid growth of solar energy in the US, spurred on by the drop in costs for solar technology, has led to low-cost solar cells replacing higher-cost inefficient coal plants. These solar cells are manufactured in China and are being threatened by Trump's tariffs. Ironically, these same Chinese-made solar cells are literally saving American lives because they offset coal-fired pollution. Pollution from coal-fired power plants is a well-known source of human illness and premature death. Thus, anything that stunts solar growth indirectly kills Americans.

How many additional Americans must die?

Trumps solar tariffs will reduce the solar installations in the US about 7.6 gigawatts (GW) from now until 2022. This keeps antiquated and polluting coal-fired power plants from retiring, causing added pollution we otherwise would have been without. About 755 GW of solar are needed to eliminate all the deaths from coal, because this much solar power would create an equivalent amount of electricity currently provided by US coal plants. Thus, the impact on premature deaths in the US can be calculated easily from the current coal-related air pollution death toll of 52,000 Americans a year. The result is that pollution that would have been prevented by solar cells from China will cause about 520 premature deaths in the US per year in 2022 -- specifically because of Trump's solar tariffs.

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Americans die slowly and quietly all over the country because of unnecessary coal-fired air pollution. Poor air quality from coal plants affects the respiratory system (causing asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer), the cardiovascular system (contributing to heart attacks and congestive heart failure), the neurological system (leading to ischemic strokes and developmental delays from mercury), as well as the urinary and digestive systems. These unnecessary diseases and premature deaths are tragic, yet are relatively ignored by the corporate media. In this case, a solar tariff (heavily condemned by the industry it ostensibly was meant to support) is an unnecessary tragedy.

Trump once quipped he could "stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." Will voters allow him to sacrifice 520 Americans a year to punish the Chinese solar industry?


Dr. Joshua M. Pearce is a professor cross-appointed in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the Michigan Technological University, where he runs the Open Sustainability Technology Research Group. His research spans areas of electronic device physics and materials engineering of solar photovoltaic cells, but also includes applied sustainability and energy policy.