As part of its bid to reduce the costs and dangers of relying on fossil fuels, the American military has been rapidly purchasing solar panels for its bases and its forward-deployed troops. But many of those panels probably were not made in the United States, a Pentagon official said yesterday.
"It's a cost issue," said Dorothy Robyn, who oversees energy projects at DOD facilities as deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, at a House Armed Services subcommittee yesterday.
Instead, many likely came from China, which has become the dominant producer of solar panels in the past two years. That country accounted for at least half the world's production last year, and its market share is rising quickly.
The perception that Beijing unfairly subsidizes the country's solar industry, giving it a leg up on U.S. companies, has irked Congress. Last year, lawmakers slipped a "buy American" provision into the military authorization bill, preventing DOD from buying Chinese-made solar panels.
"DOD has a special responsibility to lead by example when greening the government," said Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), whose state has the second largest solar market in the United States. "Its enormous purchasing power helps create new markets for renewable energy technology projects, making them more affordable for everything."
Now, Robyn said, DOD is focused on purchasing U.S.-made solar panels. But the "buy America" provision was carefully written so as not to violate free trade rules of the World Trade Organization. In fact, DOD must buy solar panels from any country that is signed onto the WTO's side agreement on government procurement -- which China is not.
That leaves lawmakers still worried about DOD opening up energy security gaps even as it taps domestic renewables.
"With DOD, one of the things we're concerned about [is]: We get in a conflict, we want to make sure some other country doesn't shut off the supply," said Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.).