The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) has ruled unanimously in favour of a petition by bankrupt Suniva Inc., claiming its business was damaged by low-cost solar module imports.
Depending on the remedies the ITC recommends by mid-November, and on the White House response to that advice, the case could imperil the rooftop installers, solar farm developers, and other businesses that employ 85% of the U.S. solar industry’s 260,000 workers.
Solar Energy Industries Association President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper called the decision a disappointment, contending that “foreign-owned companies that brought business failures on themselves are attempting to exploit American trade laws to gain a bailout for their bad investments.”
She cited analysis showing that Suniva’s proposed remedy “will double the price of solar, destroy two-thirds of demand, erode billions of dollars in investment, and unnecessarily force 88,000 Americans to lose their jobs in 2018.”
The ITC decision “raises serious concern about the potential for tariffs that could increase electricity prices and threaten a thriving solar industry that is one of the nation’s most important economic drivers,” agreed Gregory Westone, President and CEO of the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE).
But Juergen Stein, CEO and President of SolarWorld Americas, called the decision an “important step toward securing relief from a surge of imports that has idled and shuttered dozens of factories, leaving thousands of workers without jobs.”
Standard Solar Chief Development Officer Tony Clifford said anyone watching the progress of the petition might have expected the final decision to land on Donald Trump’s desk. “Fortunately, today’s decision is only the beginning, not the ending, of the story.”
In a review of the Suniva case to date, InsideClimate News cites analysis by Greentech Research that foresaw utility-scale solar costs doubling back to their 2012 levels. Residential solar costs would only increase about 15%, according to latest figures from the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, since solar modules are a smaller percentage of system costs.
“For a 5.7-kilowatt solar rooftop system, that would mean an increase from US$16,000 to about $18,400,” ICN notes. “For comparison, as recently as 2010, the price of such a system would have been about $41,270, according to NREL’s analysis.”
Overall, ICN reports, there’s no simple way to predict the impact on the U.S. industry. Beyond the sticker shock if the White House accepts Suniva’s request for a temporary tariff and price floor on imported modules, “the decision that the manufacturers have been injured does not necessarily mean that you can’t go right ahead and add those panels to your roof,” writes reporter Marianne Lavelle. “A host of other factors—your state’s electricity prices and policies, the appeal of federal tax breaks and local subsidies, and your ability to connect with an installer who can explain the ins and outs of a purchase or a lease—might be as important as trade policy decisions in Washington.”
In the lead-up to the decision, Governors Brian Sandoval (R) of Nevada, John Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado, Charlie Baker (R) of Massachusetts, and Ray Cooper (D) of North Carolina all urged the ITC to reject Suniva’s complaint, Politico Morning Energy reports.
“As governors representing states with a robust solar industry, we write to express our opposition to Suniva and SunWorld’s [sic] Section 201 petition,” they wrote. “At a time when our citizens are demanding more clean energy, the tariff could cause America to lose out on 47 gigawatts of solar installations, representing billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in our states.”