- In a packed building at the U.S. Office of the Trade Representative, opposing sides in a high-profile solar trade case sounded off in a final public hearing Wednesday. Very few of the arguments were new, but both sides stuck to their talking points in a last-ditch effort to sway President Donald Trump, who will make the final decision in January.
- A day before the hearing, Solar Energy Industries Association, which opposes the trade case, rolled out an "America First" plan designed to appeal to Trump's protectionist tendencies in an attempt to ward off any potential remedies. SEIA and its allies touted an innovative licensing fee as the best remedy at the hearing, though the trade group remains vehemently opposed to any duties.
- Petitioners Suniva and SolarWorld pushed back. In their testimony, the companies said their proposed duties will allow them to revive the domestic manufacturing sector while punishing China for stifling competition on a global scale.
For the most part, both sides repeated familiar talking points as they answered questions from the USTR. Agency representatives from the Department of Energy, USTR, Department of the Treasury, Department of Commerce, Department of State, Department of Labor and the Council of Economic Advisors presided over the hearing. However, Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, who is overseeing the case at the USTR, did not attend.
At stake are roughly 88,000 new jobs for next year and potential solar project pipelines in 2019 and 2020, according to stakeholders.
"There's a chilling affect on the market that started a few months ago," testified Michael O'Sullivan, who represented utility NextEra Energy in the hearing. Demand has already started to fall, and "most of 2018 is already damaged.
"2019 and 2020 is what's at stake here. Natural gas is very cheap and the fuel of choice for [most] utilities. Not recognizing those market forces which are ten times bigger than what you are grappling [with] here is a big error on your part."
NextEra and Duke Energy have been the most prominent utilities coming out against the proposed tariffs. Both have faced criticism in the past for their heavy reliance on fossil fuels — including natural gas.
A GTM report estimated as much as two-thirds of utility-scale solar set to come online in the next five years could disappear. Presently the industry employs roughly 260,000 people — 38,000 of which are only in manufacturing. However, SolarWorld and Suniva say their proposed remedies could boost jobs by as much as 140,000.
BY THE NUMBERS
- $23 billionTotal value of solar industry in 2016
- 260,000Total number of jobs in the U.S. solar industry.
- 38,000Total number of manufacturing jobs in solar
- 137,000Total number of installation jobs in solar
- 88,000The number of new jobs in mostly the downstream supply chain at stake in the solar trade case
- 140,000The number of new jobs petitioners SolarWorld and Suniva say the tariffs will create, mostly in the manufacturing space
- Data Source: SEIA, Mayer Brown and GTM Research
The trade case started in April after Suniva, a U.S.-based manufacturer, petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission for import relief after filing for bankruptcy protection under the rarely-used Section 201 global safegaurd measure. SolarWorld joined in May after its German parent company filed for insolvency. Both parties blamed hefty imports, mostly from Chinese companies based in other countries, for their predicament.
The ITC unanimously found injury in September, and subsequently crafted three separate remedies to be sent to Trump for consideration.
SolarWorld and Suniva want a declining tariff that begins at $0.25/watt for solar cells. For solar modules, they want tariffs that start at $0.32/watt and fall to $0.29/watt in four years. Suniva is also seeking a declining floor price of $0.74/watt for solar modules that drops to $0.64/watt over a four-year span. SolarWorld requested quotas of 0.22 GW on imported cells and 5.7 GW on imported modules in 2018. Both companies want the remedies in place for four years — although there is an option to renew for another four years.
SEIA, and its allies have proposed an import licensing fee to be used in place of the petitioners' proposals. SEIA estimates roughly $833 million would be collected in revenue over four years, and could help Suniva and SolarWorld ramp up their operations. Their proposal made its way in Commissioner Meredith Broadbent's recommendation. Broadbent recommended import licenses be sold at an auction at a penny/watt — slightly below SEIA's proposal at $0.02/watt — bringing in roughly $89 million in government revenue the first year, rising $14 million in successive years.
Broadbent also proposed to cap imports at 8.9 GW per year, increasing that amount by 1.4 GW over four years, but SEIA's President Abby Hopper said that was too "restrictive." However, she said that Broadbent's recommendation would ensure money goes directly to petitioners.
"We think that only Commissioner Broadbent's [proposal] would result in that outcome," Hopper told a panel of agency representatives.
NRG Renewables' Craig Cornelius also proffered an alternative proposal as a compliment remedy to help appease the international solar industry. And it could be an alternative should the Trump administration be skeptical of the licensing fee. Instead of remedies, the administration could ask China to terminate its duties on U.S.-manufactured polysilicon that the country imposed in 2013 in response to trade duties on solar equipment imports.
In exchange, the U.S. would lift the anti-dumping and counter-veiling duties they imposed on China in 2012 — also at the behest of SolarWorld. Roughly $1.5 billion in revenue collected from those duties would then be redistributed to domestic CSVP manufacturers, and also used to repay companies who already paid those tariffs.
However, SEIA and its allies campaigned heavily for the licensing fee to be the only remedy for imported solar panels, should Trump decide to impose duties.
Suniva CEO Matt Card took aim at SEIA's lobbying efforts, noting their proposed remedies, along with the ITC's, would not revive their sector.
"Unfortunately, the recommendations proposed by the Commission are insufficient to remedy the serious injury to the domestic industry," Card said. "The President needs to impose a stronger remedy that allows the industry to overcome the extensive and long-time efforts of foreign state-support to offset any tariff, and thus to survive and thrive on a permanent basis. A strong remedy is one that foreign governments cannot circumvent, wait out, or overwhelm."
Both companies have faced hefty criticism for a lack of an adjustment plan should the President impose remedies. SolarWorld's CEO Juergen Stein testified that their vision included "five to six, 1 GW manufacturing bases," which could help meet domestic demand. According to GTM, demand for installations is expected to reach nearly 11 GW in 2017, and more than 16 GW by 2022 — when the tariffs would expire. SolarWorld and other domestic manufacturers like Tesla and thin-film developer First Solar, is only expected to satiate part of that appetite.
Suniva, which is currently going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, said it has plans to fully restart operations after Trump's decision. A Bloomberg report noted Suniva appeared to be mulling a potential sale to foreign manufacturers, though the company said that was only part of the process and it did not solicit offers.
Now that the hearing is concluded, Trump is expected to reach a final decision by Jan. 26, a deadline pushed back after Lighthizer requested additional information from the ITC.