Solar company to Trump: We will ‘die’ without tariffs

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, April 27, 2017

Bankrupt solar company Suniva is urging the Trump administration to impose new trade barriers to prevent the wipeout of the U.S. solar manufacturing industry.

The Georgia-based manufacturer, which produces about half of U.S.-made solar cells and panels, filed a petition with the International Trade Commission today requesting that tariffs of 40 cents a watt be placed on solar cells made outside the U.S. over a four-year period. Additionally, the request asks the Trump administration to set a base import price of 78 cents per watt — or about a 30 percent price increase — on foreign-made panels.

The petition is the first filed in almost two decades under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974, according to a Suniva lawyer. The tariff would affect non-U.S.-manufactured imported cells and panels that contain non-U.S.-manufactured imported cells.

Some analysts warned that a trade war could slow the recent exponential growth of the U.S. solar industry. A successful petition could have a significant negative impact on solar demand by increasing panel prices, said Stephen Munro, a policy analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The industry already is dealing with some setbacks because of net-metering challenges in some states, he said.

Historically, trade complaints have a much better shot than many court cases, Munro said.

Lux Research analyst Max Halik noted that there have been a series of low record bids for photovoltaic systems across the world. “Suniva’s proposal would put a halt to increasingly cheap prices for solar in the U.S.,” Halik said.

A Suniva official cast the move as necessary for the survival of the U.S. industry.

“Today we stand fighting for the survival of jobs in an industry that the U.S. created,” said Matt Card, Suniva’s executive vice president of commercial operations. “Without today’s global safeguard, the U.S. solar manufacturing industry will die and we will not only lose solar manufacturing jobs today, but also those future jobs that will come from investing in the solar manufacturing industry of tomorrow.”

A glut of low-cost, foreign-made panels has sent U.S. solar manufacturers into a financial nosedive. Manufacturers say they need a higher cost point to compete with overseas factories.

Even as demand for solar installations and panels on rooftops surged in the past five years, the U.S. solar industry’s share of the manufacturing market dropped from about 21 percent to 11 percent in the same time frame.

Suniva filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month and announced layoffs. SolarWorld AG, which is not part of the new petition, also cut back its workforce.

SolarWorld said it would watch the case but preferred that any action taken on trade should consider the full U.S. solar value chain.

“The case of Suniva dramatically demonstrates that the U.S. solar manufacturing industry still suffers from unfair trade,” said Juergen Stein, U.S. president of SolarWorld.

The Commerce Department imposed higher tariffs on Chinese solar panels in 2015, after an earlier complaint from SolarWorld (Climatewire, July 10, 2015).

In a fact sheet, Suniva said that new action is needed because factories have opened in new locations, including in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Canada and Mexico.

Solar Energy Industries Association President Abigail Ross Hopper urged the federal government to find a solution that “bolsters the competitiveness of American solar cell and panel manufacturing” but does not involve new trade barriers. The U.S. solar manufacturing industry employs about 2,000 people, the organization said.

“SEIA opposes any resolution that restricts fairly traded imports of solar equipment through new tariffs or other barriers that endanger the livelihoods of the 260,000 American solar workers and their families living in every state of the union,” Hopper said.

The ITC is required to act within 120 days. If it supports Suniva’s request, a decision would move to the White House. The petition affects crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells, which cover about 95 percent of the market, according to GTM Research.