Federal trade panel calls for restrictions on imported solar cells — which Trump could soon implement

Source: By Chris Moorney, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, November 1, 2017

An installer from Baker Electric installs a solar panel on the roof of a home in Scripps Ranch, San Diego, Calif. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

In a closely watched trade case, the four commissioners of the U.S. International Trade Commission on Tuesday voiced their support for tariffs and other import restrictions to protect domestic solar companies from an influx of cheap solar panels being produced overseas.

However, the proposed remedies were not consistent among the commissioners and did not go as far as the two companies that brought the action before the board had requested — leaving few parties happy with the outcome along with lingering uncertainty over the ultimate endpoint of the process, which will be determined by President Trump.

“The remedy recommended by the ITC is disappointing because it will not heal the damage suffered by this American high-tech manufacturing sector from what has been a tidal wave of imports,” said a statement from Suniva, the now-bankrupt Georgia-based panel manufacturer that brought the original trade case with SolarWorld Americas, based in Oregon.

The case has divided the solar energy industry.

Most of the U.S. solar industry has strongly opposed the two companies’ claims, suggesting that the remedies they seek would be disastrous for the domestic industry. Tariffs or import restrictions, they say, would raise overall panel prices, costing solar jobs, particularly in panel installation.

“The commissioners clearly took a thoughtful approach to their recommendations and it’s worth noting that in no case did a commissioner recommend anything close to what the petitioners asked for,” countered Abigail Ross Hopper, the president and chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, an industry trade group that has consistently opposed the commission’s moves to protect two solar firms. “That being said, proposed tariffs would be intensely harmful to our industry.”

The two companies supporting the protections, however, say that they cannot compete with a flood of cheap solar cells from China and other nations. The largest U.S. largest solar firm, First Solar, actually backed the companies earlier this month, contradicting the larger Solar Energy Industries Association on the issue and increasing dissension within the industry.

In late September, the trade commission unanimously found that cheap solar imports were causing “serious injury to the domestic industry.” The four commissioners took their next step at a hearing on Tuesday, offering opinions on how the government should remedy the damage caused.

Next month, the commissioners will send a report to Trump, who has the choice to reject, accept or even go beyond the panel’s chosen recommendations. Many in the solar industry are worried about what the president will do, given his strong support for one of solar’s key competitors — the coal industry — and his apparent warm feelings toward trade restrictions.

The ITC commissioners recommended a variety of remedies. Meredith Broadbent, a Republican, backed modest import limits, starting at current levels, even as she said she was worried that import restrictions could “adversely affect the hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers employed in installing solar projects, manufacturing other equipment . . . and providing a range of services, including cutting-edge research and development, in support of this market.”

Broadbent recommended a four-year restriction of crystalline silicon photovoltaic panel imports, beginning with a limit of 8.9 gigawatts annually, with the allowed amount rising each year — as well as a sale of import licenses to foreign companies wishing to sell foreign-made panels in the United States. (The United States imported 12.77 gigawatts of panels in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.)

Two other commissioners, Republican David Johanson and Democrat Irving Williamson, both supported a 30 percent tariff on solar cells after 1 gigawatt had been imported and a 30 percent tariff on imported solar modules. Both duties would last for four years and decline annually, while allowed imports would slowly increase. Democrat Rhonda Schmidtlein, the chairman of the commission, recommended a similar arrangement but after only 0.5 gigawatts had been imported and a 35 percent tariff on solar modules.

Suniva had requested a stronger tariff of 40 cents per watt on solar cells, and a price floor of 78 cents per watt for modules.

Critics of tariffs cited the lack of unanimity in their responses Tuesday.

Today’s three different recommendations demonstrate Suniva’s request was not permissible under law,” said Ed Fenster, chairman of the U.S. solar firm Sunrun, in a statement. “We believe the Administration will go the next step, look past the narrow legal lens of this process and see what is plainly visible: the best move for America’s workers is to reject entirely this bailout of two bankrupt companies.”

The current complaint is about competition from cheaply priced crystalline silicon photovoltaic solar cells. The panels made by First Solar use a different technology, cadmium telluride, and so are not affected by the ITC’s decision.

But another large U.S. solar company, SunPower, could be badly hurt by the final outcome based on the panel’s ruling, according to its chief executive, Tom Werner. SunPower both manufactures and installs solar panels. But its manufacturing plants are in Malaysia and the Philippines and therefore would be subject to tariffs, raising prices for U.S. consumers.

Werner said his firm spends about $100 million annually on research and development in the United States, and would have to cut into that budget if tariffs are imposed.

“What you have is two companies that failed to compete in the marketplace that now are going to get support from companies that succeeded,” he said.

“The future of solar and the way to differentiate solar is the integration of solar in with the grid through storage and software, and fighting for solar cell manufacturing is yesterday’s game,” Werner said.

But SolarWorld had a different reaction Tuesday — hoping that Trump will make the move the company is looking for.

“We are pleased that a bipartisan majority of the Commission has recommended tariffs, tariff-rate quotas and funding for the domestic industry,” said Jurgen Stein, the chief executive and president of SolarWorld Americas, in a statement. “This is a useful first step. The process will now move forward to the President, and we continue to believe that the remedies SolarWorld has recommended are the right ones for this industry at this time.”