Even as jaded as I tend to be, I was a bit surprised when I came across this story at Outside the Beltway. It’s a tale of The American Dream, built from the ground up in storybook fashion. In it, we get to meet Bill Keith, a guy who had a legitimately clever idea to use “green” energy to do something productive. He designed a solar powered attic fan and started a small (six person) business – literally in his garage – to produce them. They pump out the hot air and lower your cooling bills without running up your electric bill. What’s not to like? Within a few years he was doing two million dollars in sales.
It was such an irresistible story that candidates Barack Obama and Joe Biden took him out on the campaign trail to spread the news of this real life American success story. But now, four years later, the worm has turned.
Today, Keith’s solar star appears to be on a collision course with another Obama policy that may put him out of business. The irony is not lost on Keith: A man whose profile and company soared because of the administration’s energy policy is now falling apart because of a new Obama anti-dumping policy involving China.
While 95 percent of Keith’s fans are American-made, he has yet to find a U.S. company that can make the small customized solar panels that make his fans run. It’s not that he hasn’t tried. He initially used a company in Michigan but they stopped manufacturing the kind of panels he needed. Then Keith turned to a New York company but the quality was so bad that he was replacing the defective parts faster than he could sell the fans.
Over the years he begged environmental groups as well as the Commerce Department for help in finding an American company that could make the key solar component. Reluctantly, he agreed to purchase them from a major company in the United States, which bought their panels from another country and then had them customized in Hong Kong. Eventually that manufacturer told Keith to deal with the Hong Kong customizer directly.
Keith said the U.S. Customs Department has accused him of using Chinese-made solar panels, in violation of a tough import policy adopted in May at the behest of major U.S. solar companies. The policy is intended to thwart China from undercutting prices and flooding the U.S. market with cheaper solar panels. The U.S. Department of Commerce is currently reviewing the policy, and is scheduled to make a determination in the fall.
Now the former “poster boy” for green energy solutions isn’t even able to get his calls taken at the White House. The best he’s been able to do, as he tells it, is to get a perfunctory, “we’ll look into it” answer from an office minion and nothing else happens. In the meantime, if the judgement goes against him, he’ll be fined out of business by the tariff.
How can something like this happen? As Doug Mataconis puts it, there’s a teachable moment here about what happens when you lie down with dogs.
I suppose that’s a lesson right there. Never expect loyalty from a politician. Keith was useful to the 2008 campaign and the White House for a time, but now he’s not and it seems as though he’s being thrown under the bus.
Doug also points us to this analysis of the effects of this type of tariff policy from National Review’s Noah Glynn. China is a tough nut to crack when it comes to trade relations and no doubt about it. But with the current policy, the law of unintended consequences is clearly in play. Sadly, it’s a game which may wind up costing Mr. Keith his business.