U.S. Solar Tariff Case Prompts New Focus on Domestic Manufacturing
With the U.S. International Trade Commission holding a hearing Tuesday to decide damages in the Suniva/SolarWorld challenge to cheap solar module imports, one of the two companies that launched the case is planning to ramp up domestic production as the rest of the industry ponders next steps.
“Our struggle has always been about keeping alive the pioneering U.S. solar technology industry as well as its work force, from Ph.D. scientists to line workers,” said SolarWorld Americas CEO and President Juergen Stein. “With relief from surging imports in sight, we believe we can rev up our manufacturing engine and increase our economic impact.”
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SolarWorld hopes to hire up to 200 new employees by May, Renewable Energy World report. Its opponents in the ITC case warned the case could put 88,000 U.S. solar jobs in jeopardy.
The case was built in part on SolarWorld’s contention that nearly 30 U.S.-based producers stopped manufacturing solar panels between 2012 and 2016 due to a five-fold increase in imports, led by China. “Friday’s determination made clear that the U.S. industry’s problems have not been self-inflicted,” Stein said. Now, “we at SolarWorld are prepared to scale up our world-class manufacturing operations to produce leading solar products made by more American workers.”
In a separate opinion piece for Renewable Energy World, market research analyst Paula Mints argues that Suniva and SolarWorld are neither villains nor victims in the ITC drama—adding that, compared to truly cataclysmic events like “Hurricanes Harvey/Irma/Jose/Maria/et al,” the trade case is just an unfortunate event, not a disaster.
“The current low prices in our industry are, unfortunately, the responsibility of all participants,” she writes. “We, as an industry, have celebrated the low prices for over a decade and have focused on ever cheaper prices, without considering the effect of these prices on quality and manufacturing viability.”
A close look at the financials, she adds, shows an industry that is putting price over quality, confusing “cheap” products with affordable ones, and accepting unrealistically low margins on manufacturing operations.
“When it is cheaper to buy than manufacture, then manufacturers will buy and rebrand,” Mints writes. “You do not know whose cell is inside your module—this is a true statement. You do not really know in many cases who manufactured your module, despite the brand name on it.”
Meanwhile, Greentech Media and Resilience.org both carried analyses last week that underscore the value of a homegrown solar manufacturing industry.
Greentech argues that manufacturing drives technology innovation, citing a National Science Foundation estimate that manufacturers account for two-thirds of U.S. research and development investment—and 80% of the money comes out of their own pockets.
“The 50+% reduction in solar costs over the past five years has primarily been brought about by innovations in the supply chain, from low-cost polysilicon production, to better throughput on materials, to improvements in efficiency,” Greentech notes. “If we believe that solar is a key part of the future of electricity, that the U.S. should be a leader in the clean electricity future, and that technology innovation is a key driver toward that realization, then we must increase investment in domestic manufacturing.”
For Resilience.org, the Suniva/SolarWorld case raises the question of how self-sufficient the U.S. or any other country should strive to be in key manufactured products, particularly when trade relationships can get as acrimonious as some of the “increasingly bellicose” exchanges between the Trump administration and China.
“The argument against self-sufficiency is that it costs more. If every country does what it does best, everyone will benefit from lower costs and higher quality. But do those low costs embody risks not accounted for, such as environmental and security risks?” Resilience asks.
“If something is cheap but you cannot get it because of a trade or diplomatic dispute, or possibly even a war between two nations, its low price doesn’t matter. And if the expertise to produce this now unavailable product is no longer found elsewhere or in one’s own country, then the price will no longer be cheap, and the disruption will be proportionate to the importance of the product in the functioning of one’s society.”