While driving, I listen to NPR more than I’d like to admit. Don’t get me wrong: I still blast some metal every once in a while to maintain my waning sense of youth, but some good old-fashioned radio journalism stimulates the brain and keeps me informed. Imagine my surprise, though, when I heard an NPR host tell listeners to stay tuned for an upcoming story about a trade case that has U.S. solar companies concerned.
Ever since Suniva filed its Section 201 petition, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) vowed to lead the fight against the trade case, and the group has done an impressive job of getting its message out both to solar workers and to the public at large. Meanwhile, co-petitioners Suniva and SolarWorld have led a strong campaign of their own. From all parties, propaganda abound.
For better or worse, the trade case has turned into a David vs. Goliath battle – or, to be more precise, Two Solar Manufacturers vs. Nearly The Entire Solar Industry. The battle came to a head on Aug. 15, when the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) held its first public hearing on the petition, and the commission is slated to make its injury determination on Sept. 22. Granted, it’s clear that most everyone in the solar industry, several lawmakers, and even some notable conservative groups like ALEC strongly oppose the petition, but I don’t envy the ITC – this is a tough case.
Suniva and SolarWorld aren’t lying when they argue the U.S. has lost a significant amount of domestic PV manufacturing over the past several years. Unfortunately, jobs have been cut, and lives have been affected. One main reason is that solar imports, especially from Asia, are cheaper and make it difficult for U.S. manufacturers to compete. However, that challenge is not unique to the solar industry, as cell phones, computers, clothing and myriad more products are often less expensive to produce in other countries. That’s a harsh reality of the global market, but does it justify disrupting fair competition and free trade? Shouldn’t a company’s successes or failures be of its own making?
In its Section 201 petition, Suniva proposed new global trade measures that would essentially make modules imported into the U.S. the most expensive in the world. Would such tariffs resurrect Suniva from bankruptcy? Of course not. Would they help SolarWorld stay afloat? Maybe. Yet despite spearheading the previous U.S. trade actions against Chinese and Taiwanese imports, SolarWorld is still struggling years later.
Testifying at the August ITC hearing, Juergen Stein, CEO of SolarWorld Americas, explained,
“[W]e expected the relief to give us the breathing space we needed to respond to unfair import competition. In fact, they did have a positive impact, and they helped us to survive until today. But here we are again. Rather than the long-lasting and meaningful relief we expected, global exports continued to increase.” Stein charged that Chinese manufacturers have set up shop in other regions to avoid the previous trade measures, adding, “Relief under Section 201 is our last hope.”
However, after claiming a past partnership with SolarWorld “turned out to be a poor decision” plagued by delivery and product-quality issues, Dan Shugar, CEO of solar tracker supplier NEXTracker Inc., argued in his testimony, “This is not a picture of a company poised to succeed in the marketplace if granted still another trade remedy.”
Regardless of whether it could somehow help SolarWorld and the remaining U.S. module manufacturers, the Section 201 case poses a major threat to the broader solar industry. As SEIA and independent studies have pointed out, imposing new tariffs and blocking off the U.S. from the rest of the world will only hinder domestic progress, putting thousands of additional jobs at risk. After all, one of solar energy’s most effective selling points is its ever-declining costs; the availability of cheaper modules, no matter from where they originate, allows developers and installers to offer lower prices, thus making utilities, businesses and homeowners more interested in adopting solar.
In a free market, there are winners and there are losers. But if the ITC intervenes and new global tariffs are imposed, U.S. demand for solar will plummet – everyone will lose.