- The U.S. International Trade Commission is set to decide on Friday if imported solar panels have harmed domestic manufacturers, potentially setting up a high-stakes tariff decision for President Trump.
- The solar sector broadly expects the ITC to find injury to two bankrupt solar manufacturers that claimed cheap Chinese solar panel imports were responsible for their demise. If the ITC finds harm, the White House will decide whether to impose tariffs or find another remedy.
- Petitioners Suniva and SolarWorld propose a tariff of $0.40/watt on imported solar cells and a floor price of $0.78/watt on imported modules. The proposal sparked uproar from a diverse set of interests, including the Solar Energy Industries Association, the Heritage Foundation and Duke Energy, who say tariffs would slow industry growth and reduce solar's competitiveness against other resources.
The solar tariff case has made for some odd bedfellows, with conservative organizations, utilities and most of the solar sector joining together to warn against imposing tariffs on imported solar modules.
If President Trump enacts the petitioners proposal, opponents say it would wreak havoc on the U.S. solar sector, endangering tens of thousands of jobs and severely curtailing utility-scale solar projects.
At risk are more than 100,000 solar jobs, both downstream and upstream in the supply chain, and two-thirds of utility-scale solar projects set to come online in the next five years, GTM Research and SEIA warned. All told, the U.S. has about 260,000 solar jobs, with 38,000 in manufacturing.
SolarWorld and Suniva pressed their case in a 10-hour hearing before the ITC in August. In a post-hearing brief, SolarWorld argued the evidence of injury to domestic manufacturing is "overwhelming," as multiple domestic manufacturers have gone under while U.S. solar panel demand explodes.
Opponents say the two companies are not representative of the wider industry and have less of a stake in the U.S. than they claim.
An E&E News investigation uncovered the majority of Suniva's products were not made in the U.S., but came from other countries. The company sold a 64% stake to Chinese firm Shunfeng in 2015. SolarWorld's parent company is based in Germany as well, which filed for insolvency in May. Suniva declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April.
Utilities and solar companies are largely united against the tariffs as utilities ramp up investments in large-scale solar projects. Two prominent Western governors, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) and Colorado's Gov. John Hickenloper (D), also protested the petition over fears it would gut their blossoming solar industries.
Gov. Sandoval's stance comes after a protracted battle over a controversial decision to slash its retail net metering rates for rooftop solar customers. After nearly a year of debate, the governor signed into law a bill that restored the rates close to retail and revived the residential solar industry.
The Department of Energy could also feel the aftershocks should the ITC side with the developers. The DOE's SunShot initiative announced last week it met its cost goals three years early and subsequently expanded the program to trim panel prices even more. Adding tariffs could impair those goals.
Some other manufacturers have taken a slightly different perspective. Foreign solar manufacturers said they are exploring options to open new facilities in the U.S. to avoid potential trade restrictions, Greentech Media reports. And some domestic manufacturers could stand to benefit, such as First Solar, which uses thin-film panels instead the crystalline silicon photovoltaic material.
If the ITC finds injury, the next step is the remedy phase, which would kick the decision to President Donald Trump. The ITC would have until November to make formal recommendations to the White House, after which Trump would have two months to decide on a final policy.