The first drawings of a machine to do laundry appeared in England in 1752…the first actual English patent on a washing machine was granted in 1792. By the mid-19th century, washing machines were commercially available in the UK and the US, by 1940 60% of the American homes that had electricity had washing machines.
And in the years since, washing machines have only gotten more popular and more efficient.
But today, I think it is fair to say, the washing machine is a plus-perfect example of a mature technology, in which most of the dramatic improvements have already occurred. Thus, while there are still differentiations among competitive machines — in efficiency, endurance, convenience and style, when it comes to selling washing machines, price is by far the biggest factor.
So, when Whirlpool, America’s biggest manufacturer of washing machines complained that it was being crushed by cheaper foreign-made products, imposing a tariff on the imports might seem like relatively low-cost protection for American entrepreneurs and American workers. Yes, the tariff will impose higher prices on consumers, but it won’t cut them off from better washers with the latest innovations, because when it comes to washing machines, nobody expects them.
A tariff on solar cells and panels, which the Trump Administration announced the same day they announced they were putting Whirlpool washing machines into the Federal Competition Protection Program, could come with higher costs, of which a hike in the price of solar energy is just one.
Unlike washing machine technology, solar energy development is still in its beginning stages, with important breakthroughs in materials and manufacturing techniques as well as improvements in operating efficiency and duration of service being registered almost on a yearly basis. And the expectation is, even better solar panels are likely to keep on coming for decades.
At this stage of its development, international competition in selling solar technology is less about price than about innovation and quality. The Whirlpools of American solar technology, Suniva Inc. and SolarWorld Americas are losing the competition for quality as well as price. Protecting them, by pushing up the price of Chinese, South Korean and Malaysian solar cells, panels and modules, discourages Americans from buying state-of-the-art equipment in favor of inferior goods.
And sheltering Suniva and SolarWorld unless it enables them to achieve product improvements that have so far eluded them, keeps American solar equipment from competing for sales abroad, by coddling their price disadvantage, which may stunt the job growth that would be created by transcending the limits of the domestic market.
The Trump solar tariff distorts more than the solar energy market, it directs Americans to embrace solar’s energy competitors – oil, gas and coal. This may be great for Trump and the GOP for whom these extractive industries are huge campaign funders, but it’s not so great for ordinary Americans whose climate and health are endangered by pollution caused by oil, gas and coal.
The competition among global energy technologies is one subject we’ll be talking about today, another is the international competition to dominate markets for those legacy fuels – oil, gas, and coal…before sun, wind and chemical-sourced energy systems displace them, or before their effects on atmosphere and climate dispose of us and our planet.
Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s global geo-economics correspondent. He has been at FP since 2013, after spending 15 years covering terrorism, energy, airlines, politics, foreign affairs, and the economy for the Wall Street Journal. He has reported from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and, contrary to rumors, has absolutely no plans to resume his bullfighting career.