Solar panel prices have plummeted as much as 80% over this past decade, leading to a huge boom for renewables and helping to dethrone coal in our power sector. Much of that decrease has been the result of large-scale manufacturing advances and scale from solar panel manufacturing in China.
But a new trade dispute could upend the economics of the solar industry in the United States. It starts with Suniva, one of the few domestic solar panel manufacturers that was left in the U.S., until it went bankrupt earlier this year. Although Suniva assets were eventually bought by a Chinese company (ironically), its creditors now want the U.S. to invoke an obscure law to “level the playing field,” per Bloomberg:
Suniva is asking for import duties of 40¢ per watt for solar cells, which currently sell for 25¢ to 33¢ a watt. If the company prevails, the price of panels imported into the U.S. could double, potentially crippling demand for solar power. Suniva’s majority owner, Shunfeng, makes its own panels in China and opposes the trade case, but it lost its say once the bankruptcy began. Suniva’s biggest creditor, New York-based SQN Capital Management LLC, made filing the trade case a prerequisite for a $4 million loan Suniva is using to finance the Chapter 11 case.
The case goes to the U.S. International Trade Commission, which will rule by September 22nd and then send its recommendations to the president. But even if the commission finds against Suniva, trade experts apparently think the law gives the president broad authority to slap import duties on the panels.
The fear is that this case plays right into Trump’s political hands: he can kill the solar industry, which is a rival to his favored coal base, and he can then claim to put “America first.”
But given that solar PV jobs vastly outnumber coal jobs, and that solar panels provide Americans with choices to save money on utility bills and reduce local air pollution, it would be a backwards move, even by his logic. As with so many issues and this new administration, we’ll have to wait and see on the outcome.
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