Trump says ‘bring me some tariffs’ as solar decision looms

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Ahead of a possible trade decision that could shock the global solar industry, President Trump told his senior advisers, “I want tariffs,” according to media reports.

Trump’s comments in the Oval Office, first described by Axios, reportedly came during retired Gen. John Kelly’s first week as chief of staff during a discussion about plans to investigate China for stealing U.S. intellectual property and technology. When asked whether he would sign a memo to investigate China, Trump said he would, but added that “it’s not what I’ve asked for the last six months.”

“So John, I want you to know, this is my view. I want tariffs. And I want someone to bring me some tariffs,” Trump said to Kelly, according to Axios.

The president also chastised “globalists” in his circle and said, “China is laughing at us … laughing.”

The president doesn’t appear to have focused on solar tariffs specifically, but several analysts said his comments signal sympathy to them when and if a decision lands on his desk about solar power. That may be especially so, they said, since a pending solar trade case before the U.S. International Trade Commission — which Trump could ultimately decide — centers on the actions of Chinese and Asian manufacturers.

“President Trump’s comments reinforce our expectation that if the US International Trade Commission reaches an affirmative determination on injury (against solar manufacturers), we would expect the president to support trade remedies that could likely weaken the value proposition of solar in the near term,” Timothy Fox, vice president at ClearView Energy Partners LLC, said in an email.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

However, Michael Moore, an economics professor at George Washington University, said there wasn’t obvious overlap with the Suniva case, since Trump referenced unfair trade practices in a different case run by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The USTR is directly under the Executive Office of the President and more likely to “bend to the will” of the president, he said.

In April, Suniva filed a petition with the ITC urging that new trade barriers be placed on crystalline silicon photovoltaic (CSPV) cells and modules, the foundation of today’s solar power. Suniva, which filed for bankruptcy this year, and co-petitioner SolarWorld Americas say they can’t compete against a flood of cheap panels manufactured primarily in Asia (E&E News PM, May 25).

The companies are seeking a levy of 40 cents per watt on cells and a price floor of 78 cents per watt on modules, which could double solar prices.

At a marathon ITC hearing this month, opponents said tariffs would have a devastating impact on the global solar industry, while supporters said barriers are needed to restore fairness (Energywire, Aug. 16). The petitioners say Chinese companies have avoided earlier tariffs on China and Taiwan specifically by moving facilities to other Asian countries.

Trump could end up deciding the case later this year if the ITC determines next month that the companies experienced “serious injury.”

The president’s focus on trade imbalances and manufacturing job creation suggests a favorable outlook for Suniva, if injury is found, according to Fox.

“Moreover, President Trump’s general indifference towards renewable power could encourage him to pursue strong trade action … politically speaking, he may be able to get away with raising the cost of solar products without risking losing many within his base,” Fox said.

The Suniva case has united unlikely allies against tariffs, including the Solar Energy Industries Association, lawmakers, environmentalists, utilities and conservative groups supportive of free trade. SEIA said in a recent study that tariffs could cause the loss of 88,000 solar jobs.

Last week, the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council — a coalition of power companies — warned in a letterto the ITC that tariffs would lead to “higher electricity prices, a disruption in the nation’s generation mix, or both.” Duke Energy sent an additional letter saying that cost increases from tariffs could eliminate solar from its “evaluation process” in determining new generation.

But Suniva and its supporters say the concerns have been overblown. Some congressional lawmakers, including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and six others who sent a letter this month, are sympathetic to a finding of injury.

“We believe this is not the time to give up on the technology leadership, R&D and jobs that come with manufacturing here in America,” they wrote.