A Cloudy Forecast for the Solar Industry
By Andy Beck

While the weather in the U.S. is cooling down, the debate over solar manufacturing is heating up. An unprecedented victory for the solar manufacturers SolarWorld and Suniva before the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) on September 22nd has set up a policy showdown between the two companies and virtually the rest of the solar industry. The Commissioners announced their preliminary recommendations on October 31st and submitted their final report containing an injury determination and recommendations to President Trump. A final policy decision by the White House is expected within two months of the ITC recommendation.

Will President Trump’s protectionist agenda prevail over U.S. renewable energy industry concerns?

The ITC determined from an investigation initiated in May of this year, that increased imports of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells (whether or not partially or fully assembled into other products) are being imported into the U.S. in such increased quantities as to be a substantial cause of serious injury to the domestic industry producing an article like or directly competitive with the imported article.

Both Sunviva and SolarWorld propose a tariff of $0.40/watt on imported solar cells and a floor price of $0.78/watt on imported modules.

Much of the industry—with vocal leadership from Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)—says the trade case is a job killer. “This is a case about two companies bringing about a petition with almost the entire rest of the solar industry is in entire disagreement,” SEIA President Abigail Hopper told reporters during a press call after the ITC ruling. The decision “introduces great uncertainty into the process,” she said.

SEIA has warned that tariffs could cost the energy sector tens of thousands of jobs and put two-thirds of utility-scale solar projects at risk.

The first Section 201 trade case filed since the early 2000s, the SolarWorld-Suniva petition takes aim at a thriving part of the power sector. Utilities have ramped up investments in solar energy in recent years, and at the end of 2016 the U.S. had more than 40 GW of solar units installed nationwide.

The ITC’s ruling could give President Trump an opportunity to implement tariffs in keeping with his “America first” agenda as well as show that he is “being tough” on China, which manufactures the majority of the world’s solar panels. An October 31st article on quoted an unnamed Administration source who said that they are worried that foreign dominance in the solar manufacturing sector could pose a national security threat, which might influence the decision of whether to levy import barriers.

In addition, a recent report by Greentech Media also pointed out that some global solar panel manufacturers are now considering setting up manufacturing facilities in the U.S. if the tariffs are approved. This report runs counter to the messaging that industry opponents have been promoting.

While the President may not be very sympathetic to renewable energy, he has voiced support for the plight of American workers. To stop the tariffs, opponents must mobilize solar industry workers. Personal stories about workers who will be harmed by the policy change in key congressional districts could have a profound effect on the White House’s decision. As recently seen in the health care reform debate, the White House is likely pay more attention to individual worker testimonials than interest group messages. Pitting American jobs against American protectionism may be the key to success.

Andy Beck is executive vice president of Makovsky’s energy, manufacturing and sustainability practice, and general manager of Makovsky’s Washington, D.C., office. Previously, Andy served as the director of public affairs for the U.S. Department of Energy.

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