An In-Depth Look into the Solar Trade War

Exposition

Recently the world of solar energy has been filled with tension at the beginning of what is now being deemed the “Solar Trade Wars.” Suniva, a United States based solar cell and module manufacturing company, declared a state of bankruptcy back in April of this year. Since then, Suniva has drafted a petition under Section 201 of the 1974 Trade Act  that would call for a drastic increase to the tariffs of imported solar modules and cells, with new prices reaching a proposed 40 cents per watt and 78 cents per watt on modules over a period of four years. Suniva argues that they cannot compete with the cheap prices of those imported goods.

SolarWorld, a German based solar manufacturing company, is supporting Suniva in its petition. Juergen Stein, SolarWorld’s U.S president, had this to say about the petition:

“SolarWorld — as the largest U.S. crystalline-silicon solar manufacturer, with more than 40 years of U.S. manufacturing experience — will assess the case brought by Suniva but prefers that any action to be taken against unfair trade shall consider all parts of the U.S. solar value chain. We’re committed to helping to find a way that also considers the interests of other parties playing fair in the U.S. solar market.”

Suniva reported that it faced losses of $50 million in 2015 due to a “flooding of the U.S market” brought by Asian countries. Suniva states the flooding of the U.S market of imported goods caused record low prices for solar cells and modules, which inevitably led them to bankruptcy.

The Context of Conflict

 

The petition submitted by Suniva has raised some degree of conflict, especially with the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). SEIA, which represents thousands of installers and developers, opposes the petition on the claim that the proposed tariffs would potentially take away 88,000 jobs from the U.S solar industry, almost one-third of the entire U.S solar workforce. The states that are projected to see the most significant impact are California with 15,800 job losses, South Carolina with 7,000 job losses, and Texas with 6,300 job losses.

SEIA President and CEO, Abigail Ross Hopper, stated that “Rather than help the industry, the action would kill many thousands of American jobs and put a stop to billions of dollars in private investment.”

She adds, “Our estimates show that even in the states where Suniva and its lone supporter, SolarWorld, have operations, if the petition succeeds, there would be many times more jobs lost than expected gains for two struggling companies.”

SEIA predicts that solar jobs would be lost in all parts of the U.S. market. The utility-scale market, which has paced the industry’s growth for years, would see jobs shrink by 60%, while residential and commercial employment would fall by 44% and 46%, respectively.

Christian Hudson, a representative of Suniva, retorts in light of SEIA’s new announcement. He says, “First we heard the scare tactic that 260,000 jobs were in jeopardy, now we hear a revised number of 88,000 – and while this is yet another inaccurate scare tactic, at this rate, we might hear accurate numbers by the end of summer.”

Suniva also argues that the tariffs would increase investment opportunities and competition in the U.S market by eliminating much of the foreign competition. In a somewhat bizarre twist, however, Suniva itself is majority owned by Shunfeng International Clean Energy, a company based in China.

Outcomes

The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) agreed to hear Suniva’s case in May, and is expected to reach a decision sometime around September. Their decision will determine if relief is necessary for Suniva. The ITC will then make a recommendation to the President of the United States on their suggested course of action. If the case is approved by the ITC, it will then go onto President Donald Trump who will have 60 days to make a final decision on the matter. The President is not required to abide by the recommendations of the ITC should the case reach his desk.

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