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Green Building News

Hearings Open on Solar Panel Trade Case

Opponents warn that new tariffs on imported solar technology could put thousands of American jobs at risk and double the cost of PV modules

Imported crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells and modules could get more expensive should the International Trade Commission recommend new tariffs. Hearings on a petition seeking new duties opened on Tuesday in Washington.
Image Credit: Pete Jelliffe / CC BY-ND 2.0 / Flickr

The U.S. International Trade Commission opened hearings in Washington on Tuesday that could result in higher prices for imported solar technology and, according to a solar trade association, cost 88,000 Americans their jobs.

The petition seeking tariffs on photovoltaic (PV) cells and minimum PV module prices was filed earlier this year by Suniva, a bankrupt solar manufacturer, which said China and other Asian countries were “flooding” the U.S. with solar cells and modules, The Hill reported. The Atlanta-based company said that the American crystalline silicon cell industry was “disintegrating” and would not be able to survive as imported technology “unexpectedly exploded and prices have collapsed.”

Two days after the ITC said it would launch an investigation into Suniva’s complaint, SolarWorld Americas said it would join as a co-petitioner for the tariffs.

The case illustrates the complexities of the international solar market. A majority share of Suniva, which filed for bankruptcy on April 18, is owned by Shunfeng International Clean Energy, a Chinese firm. SolarWorld Americas also has a foreign parent company, the German firm SolarWorld AG. It, too, has filed for insolvency, the German equivalent of bankruptcy, according to an article in PV magazine.

The ITC proceedings will be closely watched, with a number of solar workers making the trek to Washington to show their opposition to potential trade penalties. “Fired up and ready to go!” one of them said in a #SaveSolarJobs post on Twitter. “Solar workers showing up to show the ITC what’s at stake.”

Tariffs opposed by trade group

The Solar Energy Industries Association claims that tariffs and minimum PV module prices would threaten an industry that now employs more than 260,000 Americans and could mean the loss of 88,000 jobs by next year.

In a letter to the ITC in May, the association said that the duties sought by Suniva would be “extremely damaging” to the industry.

“In particular,” the letter said, “the duty on unassembled cells, more than doubling their cost, would adversely affect U.S. module assembly operations which account for most of the roughly 1,500 CSPV cell/module manufacturing jobs that currently exist in the United States.” The SEIA also said “the erection of trade walls” would do nothing to address the underlying problem of excess global manufacturing.

The association criticized the two petitioners for a “long history of management and technical failures.”

A group of 16 U.S. senators has also joined the battle with a letter outlining their “deep concern” over the prospect of new trade penalties. “Solar companies in our states believe the requested trade protection would double the price of solar panels,” the senators wrote. “Increasing costs will stop solar growth dead in its tracks, threatening tens of thousands of American workers in the solar industry and jeopardizing billions of dollars in investment in communities across the country.”

GTM said in a June post that the request for a tariff of 40 cents per watt on cells and a minimum price of 78 cents per watt on modules “would cause unprecedented demand destruction.”

What happens next

The ITC will determine by late next month whether Suniva and SolarWorld have been damaged by imported solar technology and make a recommendation to President Trump by November 13, The New York Times said.

In an earlier case before the ITC, SolarWorld Americas and six other U.S. manufacturers claimed that Chinese makers were benefiting from unfair government subsidies, The Times reported. Tariffs resulting from that case ranged from about 20% to 55%, and helped fuel a $10 million expansion at SolarWorld’s Hillsboro, Oregon, factory.

More recently, domestic demand for PV modules in China dropped and manufacturers reduced prices, forcing global prices down. The domestic industry’s share of the panel market has been falling, reaching just 11% last year, the report said.

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