Solar Has New Way to Duck Trump’s Tariffs: Two-Sided Panels

Source: By Ari Natter, Bloomberg • Posted: Friday, June 14, 2019

The solar industry has a new way of ducking the Trump administration’s tariffs on its imports: two-sided panels.

The U.S. Trade Representative said in a notice made public Wednesday that it’s granting an exemption to solar duties for bifacial panels, ones that can generate power on both sides. The carve-out is a win for both Asian manufacturers including JinkoSolar Holding Co., LG Electronics Inc. and Hanwha Q Cells Co. and big U.S. solar-farm developers that can easily switch over to using them.

“This could insulate almost the entire utility-scale market from tariffs,” BloombergNEF solar analyst Hugh Bromley said. “I would expect the utility-scale industry to pivot almost 100% to bifacial products.”

The exemption may represent the clearest solution yet for an industry that’s been roiled by the import tariffs, imposed by the Trump administration in January 2018 as a way of leveling the playing field for U.S. panel makers. Some companies have already shifted their entire supply chains to skirt the duties. Others are building factories in the U.S. In September, California-based solar maker SunPower Corp. won an exemption, arguing that its panels — made mostly in factories abroad — are a premium product.

Boost Adoption

“We’ve been advocating for additional exclusions, and bifacial modules in particular, for over a year now,” said John Smirnow, vice president of market strategy for the trade group Solar Energy Industries Association. “This exemption will accelerate the adoption of bifacial technology in the U.S., which is still in a relatively early stage.”

Roth Capital Partners said the news may be negative for U.S. solar maker First Solar Inc. and positive for Jinko and Canadian Solar Inc., which in May agreed to supply 1,800 megawatts of bifacial and traditional modules to EDF Renewables. U.S. solar installers Sunrun Inc. and Vivint Solar Inc. also stand to benefit, analyst Philip Shen said.

First Solar fell 6.8% Wednesday. In a research note Thursday, Shen said that “upon further review” the impacts on First Solar “may not be that bad.” First Solar was up 2.9% at 10:40 a.m. in New York.

The exemption is another sign that bifacial products will gain momentum in the industry, JinkoSolar’s vice president Qian Jing said on Thursday in response to Bloomberg queries. “There’s huge market potential in the U.S. and the rest of the world,” she said.

The sentiment is echoed by Chinese producer Longi Green Energy Technology Co. Tariffs have made U.S. prices of bifacial products about 50% more expensive than elsewhere, and the exemptions now will support U.S. clean energy development, said the company’s President Li Zhenguo.

Small Share

Chinese manufacturer Trina Solar Ltd. is expecting the exemption to apply to the bifacial modules it deploys, Steven Zhu, the company’s president for the Americas, said in an emailed statement. “Our review is ongoing,” he said, “but we are optimistic this will help our customers recognize value from this product offering.”

Canadian Solar and First Solar didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

While bifacial panels still hold a small share of the total solar market — just 3% last year — production could ramp up quickly as a result of the exclusion, according BloombergNEF. Those making panels in the U.S. meanwhile stand to lose some of their edge. “They are back in competition with mainland China,” BNEF analyst Jenny Chase said by email.

In addition to bifacial panels, the administration allowed for some very specific exclusions on certain kinds of flexible fiberglass ones and those that have rows of solar cells “separated by more than 10mm” laminated into them, a Federal Register notice scheduled to be published Thursday shows.

— With assistance by Brian Eckhouse, and Feifei Shen