Solar Tariffs Divide Industry

The Trump Administration's decision to impose tariffs on solar equipment imported into the U.S. has resulted in mixed reactions across the U.S. solar industry.

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The Trump administration’s decision to impose tariffs on imported solar panels is provoking widely varied responses. 

Critics argue that the tariff will slow the development of renewable energy and trigger a cut in solar employment, while others believe the tariff will have little impact on the expansion of solar power. Supporters also argue that the tariff will support American jobs and businesses.

The tariff on solar equipment made abroad starts at 30 percent in the first year, with the rate declining 5 percent annually until it reaches 15 percent in the fourth year. However, the policy exempts  the first 2.5 gigawatts of cells imported each year.

This is not the first tariff that has impacted the solar industry. In 2012 and 2014, the Obama administration imposed higher tariffs on the Chinese solar industry than the recently announced measures. The difference is that the new tariffs apply to imports from all countries.

President Trump’s decision to levy broad-based tariffs comes almost nine months after Suniva Inc., a U.S. manufacturer with a Chinese majority owner, filed for bankruptcy and asked for import duties on solar cells and panels. It attributed its downfall to the flood of cheap panels produced in Asia. The U.S. unit of German manufacturer SolarWorld AG signed on as co-petitioner, adding to Suniva’s cause.

Mixed Reviews

The move has generated varying responses from the U.S. solar industry. Manufacturers largely support the tariff as a way to increase domestic business, while installers see it as a threat to the $28 billion industry that depends on foreign-made parts for about 80 percent of its supply.

“While tariffs in this case will not create adequate cell or module manufacturing to meet U.S. demand, or keep foreign-owned Suniva and SolarWorld afloat, they will create a crisis in a part of our economy that has been thriving, which will ultimately cost tens of thousands of hard-working, blue-collar Americans their jobs,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president & CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), in a prepared statement. SEIA estimates the decision will cause the loss of some 23,000 American jobs in 2018, many of them in manufacturing.

“There’s no doubt this decision will hurt U.S. manufacturing, not help it,” added Bill Vietas, president of RBI Solar in Cincinnati. He argues that while the U.S. solar manufacturing sector has grown during the industry’s recent surge, “Government tariffs will increase the cost of solar and depress demand, which will reduce the orders we’re getting and cost manufacturing workers their jobs.”

Other observers offer a contrasting view. “We have been anticipating the potential tariffs for several months and are already positioned to continue our aggressive growth plans. The market is behind renewables, and that momentum will only continue to grow,” said John Billingsley, chairman & CEO of Dallas-based Sunfinity Solar, in a prepared statement. The firm supported House Bill 199, which opposes Texas electric utilities’ intention to charge higher rates to residential customers with solar systems. Billingsley said he that believes Trump’s announcement is “not a game changer” because solar power is clean, renewable and cost-competitive with traditional sources, even after the new tariffs. 

GTM Research issued a revised forecast that estimates the U.S. solar market will see a net reduction in installations of around 11 percent as a result of the new tariffs, which means a cumulative 61.3 gigawatts of solar deployed over the next five years compared to an original projection of 68.9 gigawatts.

“Essentially, this has a meaningful but not destructive impact on solar installations, and at the same time it’s not exceptionally encouraging for domestic solar cell and module manufacturing,” said MJ Shiao, head of Americas research for GTM Research. “Some people look at it as a win-win; some people look at it as a lose-lose.”

According to GTM’s calculations, the duties for modules will result in an average 10 cent per watt increase in the first year, decreasing to a 4 cents per watt by the fourth year. The biggest impact is expected to be in 2019, as many installers placed their 2018 orders early in anticipation of trade policy changes. 

“The reason…we think the 2018 impacts are muted is because we think there were somewhere between 2 to 3 gigawatts of modules in the U.S. by the end of the year basically dedicated for projects in the works—projects under construction to come online in the first half of the year, or allocated modules for projects that will begin construction in early 2018,” said Shiao.

Geographically, some states will be more affected than others, with southern states like Texas, Florida and South Carolina likely to feel the most impact, according to GTM Research’s forecast.