A Looming Bust for U.S. Solar Industry?

The U.S. solar market may soon be heading into a very dark place.

Back in July, I mentioned the international trade case threatening to upend solar markets.  Well, on Friday, September 22, 2017, the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) unanimously found that American solar photovoltaic (PV) cell and equipment manufacturers have been harmed by a flood of cheap, foreign-made solar PV, setting the stage for potential imposition of import tariffs that could substantially increase the cost of installing solar in the U.S.

The cost of solar PV has been dropping rapidly in the U.S., with the U.S. Department of Energy announcing last month that the solar industry had achieved the agency’s SunShot Initiative 2020 cost reduction goal of $0.06 per KWh for utility-scale PV power, three years ahead of schedule.

And, cost reductions have been driving growth in installed solar capacity. 2016 saw a doubling of solar capacity installed compared to the previous year, representing 14.8 gigawatts of new dc capacity.

But the ITC trade case threatens to turn the solar boom into a bust.

After declaring bankruptcy in April 2017 (and per an agreement with one of its debtors that is bankrolling the trade case fight), the Georgia-based and majority Chinese-owned solar PV cell and equipment manufacturer, Suniva, filed a petition with the ITC claiming cheap imports made it impossible for the company to compete. Bankrupt German-based Solarworld AG, with a manufacturing facility in Oregon, later joined the petition in support.

The petition, filed under a relatively obscure part of the Trade Act of 1974 (Section 201), requests a 40 cents per watt tariff on imported solar cells be imposed for four years, plus a 78 cents per watt floor price on all imported solar equipment (a 30% price increase).

The Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade association representing U.S. solar installers, believes 88,000 solar industry jobs would be lost in 2018 if the tariffs are put in place.

The petitioners argue these blanket tariffs on all imports would succeed where past tariffs on countries like China and Taiwan have failed, as these foreign manufacturers have quickly set up shop in non-tariffed countries or used shipping methods to mask the country of original manufacturer in order to avoid tariffs.

However, the ITC’s September 22 decision did not support the idea of blanket tariffs on all imports. Specifically, the ITC excluded tariffs on imports from countries like Canada, Australia, Colombia, Singapore and a few others, given imports from these countries are not a substantial cause of harm.

Some very unlikely allies are stepping up to oppose Suniva’s efforts, not so much because they like solar, but because they are worried about the trade policy precedent that could be set by the case and how that could impact other growth industries.  Groups like the Heritage Foundation, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and others have joined the Energy Trade Action Coalition, which was established to fight the trade case.

Next up, the ITC will hold a hearing on October 3 to explore what remedies should be put in place and will forward its recommendations to President Trump no later than November 13. President Trump will then have two months to make a decision.

The current four –member ITC is composed of two democrats and one republican nominated by President Obama, and another republican nominated by President Bush.

President Trump will have the final say on the remedies, and he has the authority to follow, or be more or less stringent than the ITC’s recommendations. Trump has openly called for tariffs against China. As a supporter of the coal industry and booster of domestic manufacturing, it is probable that the president will support imposition of steep tariffs.

Perhaps there are two bright sides to this gloomy scenario.

First, thin-film solar, like the product produced by First Solar, will remain cheap and now may become more competitive if PV prices increase.

Second, similar Sector 201 tariffs put in place on imported steel products in 2002 by President George W. Bush where lifted one year later, after foreign countries complained to the World Trade Organization. The WTO found the tariffs to be illegal.

Christina Simeone

Kleinman Center Senior Fellow
Christina Simeone is a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and a doctoral student in advanced energy systems at the Colorado School of Mines and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a joint program.