What you need to know about the solar trade case threatening to upend the industry

The International Trade Commission will hear arguments on Tuesday.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

The federal International Trade Commission will hold a hearing Tuesday on whether solar imports from China are causing “substantial damage” to domestic solar companies.

The ITC’s determination — and President Donald Trump’s subsequent actions — could be a massive blow to the industry, which has seen double-digit annual market growth over the past decade and now employs a quarter of a million U.S. workers.

If the tariff is imposed, annual solar installations would likely decrease, triggering a feedback effect: As the solar market contracts, costs come down more slowly, which further decreases the solar market.

According to the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), the industry could lose 88,000 jobs if the ITC accepts Suniva’s proposed tariffs.  Analysts from Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg New Energy Finance have also suggested the proposed tariff and minimum pricing requirements would double the price of solar panels in the United States.

Representatives for the solar industry say the two companies that brought the complaint are responsible for their financial woes. Both companies have struggled recently.

The case was filed in May by Suniva, a solar panel manufacturer that had accounted for one-fifth of U.S.-made crystalline silicon panels, after the company declared bankruptcy. A month later, another company, SolarWorld, joined the petition, then immediately announced it would lay off more than half of its Oregon factory workers.

In a pre-hearing brief, SEIA called Suniva and SolarWorld’s problems “self-inflicted.”

“The petitioners suffered from a series of poor business decisions that negatively affected their ability to compete,” SEIA said. “Suniva and SolarWorld both experienced complaints from a litany of dissatisfied customers over late shipments, damaged products, and general product unreliability.”

To counter this narrative, Suniva and SolarWorld this week released an economic analysis by law firm Mayer Brown finding that the proposed tariffs “would result in a net gain in employment of at least between 114,796 and 144,298 jobs for the US solar industry,” over the next five years.

SEIA was incredulous. “The notion that doubling the price of solar panels would somehow increase demand and create jobs is preposterous,” Hopper said. “SEIA has spoken with dozens of manufacturers in the supply chain who ardently oppose this petition because the projected decline in demand will force them to lay off workers… companies working in the solar industry today have been clear that Suniva’s sought-after remedy will be devastating to the American solar industry.”

I don’t believe trade protectionism is in our country’s best interest,” Abigail Ross Hopper, SEIA’s president and CEO, said in a call with reporters earlier this year. 

Suniva filed the case under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974. Under this section, the ruling will not depend on finding illegal activity. Instead, the ITC’s investigation will look at whether items “are being imported into the United States in such increased quantities as to be a substantial cause of serious injury, or the threat thereof, to the domestic industry producing an article like or directly competitive with the imported articles.”

The ITC, a quasi-independent federal body that rules on trade violations, has until September to make a ruling in the case. If it finds there was injury to the U.S. companies, it will hold another public hearing while it considers what the remedy should be. (If, during this investigation, it determines there was no injury, the case will end.) By the end of November, 180 days after the filing was first made, the commission must send any recommendation to the president, who makes the “final decision” on what to do.

Tariffs have backfired before. In 2002, then-President George W. Bush imposed tariffs on the steel industry. Rather than boosting the local industry, the move caused steel prices to more than double. Jobs were lost as U.S. manufacturers turned to overseas suppliers.

In a call with reporters in May, Hopper said that if the president decides to inflict tariffs on China, a country he has repeatedly criticized, any laudatory headlines would be “vastly outweighed by the competing headline that you have just put 100s of thousands of workers out of a job.”