A bankrupt, Chinese-owned, U.S. solar panel maker in Georgia has thrown a chill onto hundreds of more profitable participants in America’s solar industry by asking for a tariff that could double the price of photovoltaic cells and panels from China.
Suniva Inc. began making solar cells and panels in 2006, and by early this year employed as many as 250 people at plants in Michigan and its headquarters in Gwinnett County, Georgia. In 2015, Hong Kong-based Shunfeng International Clean Energy Ltd., which describes itself as “China’s largest independent private large-scale ground-mounted solar power service provider,” bought 63% of Suniva’s shares.
However, Bloomberg reports, the company has struggled against cheaper panels imported from China and a shakeout of early U.S. solar industry leaders. Suniva laid off most of its employees, earlier this year and filed for bankruptcy protection in mid-April.
But while it may be insolvent, Suniva is still kicking. After filing for bankruptcy protection, it petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission for relief, in the form of a “temporary” four-year tariff on all American imports of photovoltaic cells or panels, and a government-set minimum price for solar modules brought into the United States.
“Without today’s requested safeguard,” Suniva Vice President Matt Card said in a statement accompanying the petition, “the U.S. solar manufacturing industry will die and we will not only lose solar manufacturing jobs today, but also future jobs that will come from the solar manufacturing industry of tomorrow.”
As Global Policy Watch recalls, the United States already imposes anti-dumping and countervailing duties against solar cells and modules from China and Taiwan. The global scope of what Suniva wants now “goes beyond” those measures “and would affect all solar cells and modules imported into the United States, regardless of origin.”
Thin-film photovoltaic products, as well as “modules, laminates, and panels produced in other countries using cells manufactured in the United States,” would be excluded from the penalty, GPW adds.
Nonetheless, the group calculates that Suniva’s requested duty of US$0.40/watt on imported solar cells and US$0.78/watt on solar modules “would roughly double” the cost of importing those key solar elements for the rest of the industry.
“A lot of solar people are worried,” observes the industry newsletter E&E News [subs req’d]. “It is, front and centre, the biggest uncertainty within the industry,” said California solar installer Barry Cinnamon. “One of the reasons it’s of such concern is that it could end up being decided on a political basis, and it’s very hard to tell which way the solar winds are blowing in Washington.”
Indeed, the political optics of the Suniva case are complicated. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the company received more than US$11 million in local and federal incentives to locate in Gwinnett County, “and millions more from the state and communities in Michigan.”
At the same time, if the Trump administration grants Suniva’s petition, PVMagazine headlines, it “could start [a] new global solar trade war,” endangering hundred of thousands of jobs elsewhere in the solar supply chain that have come to rely on the existing price structure.
“We acknowledge the complexity of this issue,” Abigail Ross Hopper, CEO of the U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association, told E&E. “We have 250,000 workers, thousands of companies, and anything that puts that industry at risk is a threat.”
“On the other hand,” she added, “we believe in domestic manufacturing.”