Major U.S. solar company blames job cuts on Trump’s solar import tariff

SunPower has already begun a series of layoffs.

SunPower solar panels are installed at 15-megawatt solar generating station at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. CREDIT: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
SunPower solar panels are installed at 15-megawatt solar generating station at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. CREDIT: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

President Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on imported solar materials is already taking its toll on U.S. jobs.

After putting plans on hold last month to expand its factories in the United States, SunPower Corp., one of the nation’s largest solar panel manufacturers, now intends to lay off between 150 and 250 workers from its U.S. operations, or 3 percent of its global workforce, as part of a plan to cut operating expenses by 10 percent.

SunPower attributed the job cuts to the 30-percent tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on imported solar cells and panels, The Hill reported Wednesday. Company chief executive Tom Werner estimates the new tariffs will cause the company to lose $50 million in 2018 and as much as $100 million in 2019.

Werner’s comments built on information that SunPower released in a filing submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) last week. The news also came only two weeks after SunPower reported a 35-percent decrease in revenue in 2017 compared to 2016.

Werner told The Hill that it has already begun the layoffs. Based in San Jose, California, SunPower imports most of its components from manufacturing facilities in the Philippines and Mexico.

Trump slapped the 30-percent tariff on imported solar cells and panels in January after the U.S. International Trade Commission ruled last year that China had harmed the domestic solar manufacturing industry with policies aimed at taking over the global market. The industry gets about 80 percent of its solar panel products from imports.

The Solar Energy Industries Association, the primary lobby group for the U.S. industry, estimates Trump’s decision may cost the fast-growing industry about 23,000 jobs in 2018 and cause billions of dollars in solar investments to be canceled or delayed. The industry currently employees more than 260,000 people, primarily in the installation business.

The possibility that Trump would raise the price of a major component to solar photovoltaic systems contributed to a slowing of orders in 2017. This in turn helped reverse the multi-year trend in sharply rising employment.

In January, SunPower said it was putting a $20 million U.S. factory expansion and hundreds of new jobs on hold until its solar panels receive an exemption from Trump’s solar tariffs. “We have to stop the $20 million investment because the tariffs start before we know if we’re excluded,” Werner told Reuters last month. “It’s not hypothetical. These were positions that we were recruiting for that we are going to stop.”

In the February 22 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, SunPower said it has started implementing initiatives to reduce operating expenses “in light of the known shorter-term impact of tariffs imposed on photovoltaic cells and modules.” The company expects to complete the initiatives in mid-2019.

SunPower, majority-owned by Total, the French oil and gas multinational, said it expects mostly non-manufacturing employees to be affected.

This article was amended on March 1, 2018, to report that SunPower plans to cut its workforce by 3 percent, which will amount to about a 10 percent decrease in its operating expenses.