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Solar industry clashes over imports at trade hearing

By: James Osborne |

U.S. solar manufacturers and developers clashed Tuesday in a hearing before the U.S. International Trade Commission over whether solar panels from Asia represented an unlawful threat to domestic manufacturers.

Two U.S. solar manufacturers, Georgia-based Suniva and Oregon-based SolarWorld, are calling for the ITC to impose tariffs on foreign-made solar panels across the board, arguing that large manufacturers abroad are dumping their products onto the global market below cost, driving American competitors into bankruptcy.

 “The U.S. is literally strewn with the carcasses of shuttered solar manufacturing facilities,” said Matthew McConkey, an attorney representing Suniva. “Are we supposed to believe the almost 30 members of the domestic industry that have gone out of business over the last five years, all of them made bad decisions while companies in Korea (and other countries) were so brilliant? Please.”

Suniva is petitioning the ITC for a four-year tariff on a type of solar panel most commonly sold around the world. But the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group backing solar developers who buy the panels, is fighting to stop them, arguing manufacturers’ struggles stem from a failure to anticipate shifts in the market. The group estimates the tariffs would wipe out more than one-third of their industry’s 250,000 jobs.

Last year solar accounted for almost 40 percent of new generation on the U.S. power grid, more than any other source, according to data compiled by GTM Research, a market analysis firm that studies renewable energy. Solar capacity in Texas doubled last year to 1.2 gigawatts, enough to power more than 200,000 Texas homes.

“Whether that growth would continue if Suniva is successful, that is pretty questionable,” said George Hershman, general manager of Swinerton Renewable Energy, which is building a 150-megawatt solar farm in West Texas for NRG Energy.

Driving the installation boom are solar prices that have plunged roughly 70 percent since 2010, the product of a global race to produce greater and greater quantities of panels to feed demands from governments worldwide for carbon-free forms of energy.

With countries including the United States pumping tens of billions of dollars into building the solar industry, that has at times resulted in a supply that far exceeds demand, said Tim Fox, vice president at the Washington research firm ClearView Energy Partners.

“It’s a mature industry now, and there’s winners and losers,” he said. “There may be a smaller U.S. manufacturing role than first envisioned, but I don’t expect them to be entirely wiped out.”

The prospect of an across-the-board tariff has raised protest from a diverse coalition of business and political groups – including everyone from the conservative Heritage Foundation to some of the nation’s largest power companies, including Dallas-based Vistra.

“Over the last several years utilities and public power have increasingly diversified their portfolios,” said Scott Segal, an attorney representing the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a power industry group. “Inappropriate imposition of trade remedies on solar technology can fundamentally change the landscape for renewables without any consequent social benefits.”

Likewise, lobbyists representing solar developers lined up seven elected officials from around the country to speak against the tariff at Tuesday’s hearing. The lone public official who spoke in support of solar manufacturers was Bucky Johnson, mayor of Norcross, Ga., the town of 16,000 where Suniva’s plant operated before shutting down earlier this year.

“Some might say protectionism,” he said, “I say bunk. Give us a fair shot at competing.”

The ITC is expected to issue a final ruling on a tariff by mid-November. Were it to rule in favor of Suniva, the ultimate decision on a broad solar tariff would lie with President Donald Trump.

The White House has offered little indication how it is leaning, but the president’s tough-on-trade rhetoric and support for coal energy, a competitor of solar, have raised speculation he would be inclined to support the tariff.

“We believe the Suniva petition was drafted with President Trump’s energy and economic policies in mind,” Fox said.