Abigail Ross Hopper, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, did not mince words on a call with reporters today about Suniva's pending solar trade case. The petition Suniva filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission last month "poses an existential threat to the broad solar industry and its 260,000 American jobs," she said.
"I want to be clear as we go forward...that SEIA is going to lead the fight on this petition every step of the way," said Hopper.
Upon recently declaring bankruptcy, Suniva asked the International Trade Commission (ITC) to impose duties of 40 cents per watt on imported cells and set a floor price of 78 cents per watt on modules. The Georgia-based solar panel manufacturer filed under Section 201 of the 1974 Trade Act, which is an obscure part of U.S. trade law that could allow the president to implement tariffs, minimum prices or quotas on solar products from anywhere in the world if the ITC finds "serious injury."
The Suniva case -- which the ITC is currently deciding whether or not to take up -- is different from previous trade cases brought by the U.S.-based manufacturer SolarWorld, said Hopper. First, because it covers every single country in the world, and not just China and Taiwan, as in the SolarWorld circumstance. Second, this type of filing does not relate to any wrongdoing on any country’s part. The Suniva case is not about foreign dumping of solar products; it's about one company claiming that it's unable to compete, she said. These elements, taken together, make Suniva's complaint of “a much different caliber and threat level” than previous cases.
One company is requesting trade protection for a sub-sector of the solar industry, specifically solar cell production, Hopper continued. This comes despite the fact that other manufacturers and other areas of the solar sector within the U.S. are adding jobs. Those other segments could face a serious blow if the ITC takes up Suniva's petition. Numerous research firms, including Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, have determined that the price of solar panels in the U.S. could double and if Suniva's proposed import duties are approved. (GTM Research analysts will also be delving into the issue at this week's Solar Summit.)
“If that happens, demand for solar panels will likely drop as solar will become less competitive with other electricity sources and project costs will rise," Hopper said. "That means fewer projects will be built in the U.S. both on rooftops and utility-scale, and jobs across the U.S. will dry up.”
“Solar may also appear less attractive to financial firms, due to this type of significant policy risk," she added.
Trade barriers won't bring back domestic manufacturing
On Friday, SEIA wrote a letter to the Secretary of the ITC, registering the group's opposition to the import relief requested by Suniva. The letter argues that the company is not "representative" of the domestic crystalline silicon photovoltaic (CSPV) cells and modules industry, and, therefore, "does not have standing to bring this action."
Whether or not Suniva is found to be representative of the entire industry will play a key role in whether the ITC decides to consider the petition. According to Hopper, the fact that Suniva has a Chinese majority owner is not relevant to the case. Rather, the ITC's determination will primarily focus on market share, which is where SEIA believes Suniva comes up short.
"They're not representative of the domestic industry as they have defined it," she said. The ITC's ruling on the "representative" question will determine whether or not the government body initiates a full investigation.
SEIA's letter goes on to note that the relief sought by Suniva would be extremely damaging, and would undercut, not promote, effective action to address the underlying issue of global excess CSPV cell/module manufacturing capacity. Building trade barriers through tariffs and minimum prices will not bring back domestic manufacturing. Instead, "allies in the effort to align global capacity with global demand will be distracted by the felt need to oppose a U.S. safeguard action that negatively affects them," the letter states.
"The best way to deal with oversupply is to let the market act," said Hopper. "The market will act by prices changing and demand increasing.”
First Solar, the largest U.S.-based solar panel manufacturer and a SEIA board member, has seen its profits suffer in recent quarters due to an oversupply of solar modules. As a domestic panel maker, First Solar stands to benefit if Suniva wins its trade case. Hopper said that the SEIA board voted "overwhelmingly" in favor of opposing the new duties, indicating there was not unanimous approval. She would not disclose how First Solar voted.
She did underscore that SEIA is working with U.S.-based manufacturers to find "creative" ways to shore up that segment of the industry. Possible solutions include R&D advancements and loans programs, or other actions the Department of Energy could take to support domestic panel makers, Hopper said. Meanwhile, tariffs on panels from China and Taiwan remain in place to address unfair trade practices previously identified in the SolarWorld dispute.
The timeline and President Trump
The ITC will soon announce whether or not it will consider Suniva's request. If it does, the commission will have four months to decide if there's "injury." If injury is found, the ITC will have another two months to suggest a remedy to the president. President Trump will have additional two months to determine what the remedy might be -- he can either accept the commission's proposal, alter it, or determine the proposal is not appropriate.
It's possible that the Trump administration, which has made reviving the U.S. manufacturing sector a top priority, could side with Suniva for political reasons. Because it has also expressed support for the fossil fuel industry and baseload power, some believe the administration could use the solar trade case as a way to make renewables less competitive with traditional resources.
However, President Trump has also emphasized his interest in creating jobs. And from that perspective, the trade case is a disaster, said Hopper.
SEIA's role is to "help this new administration understand that there are these 260,000 domestic jobs at risk, and that the benefits of being able to grab a headline and say, 'We’ve imposed tariffs,' will be vastly outweighed by the competing headline that you have just put hundreds and thousands of workers out of a job.”
SEIA is also actively ginning up support from members of Congress and from like-minded organizations, while formulating legal arguments against the petition. At the same time, the industry group is taking a leadership role in addressing federal tax reform and how that could affect solar companies. It's also involved in Energy Secretary Rick Perry's baseload energy study and is participating in state-level debates on net metering and renewable portfolio standards.
Hopper invited more stakeholders to help SEIA fight these battles, and to put a face on what the 260,000-strong solar workforce actually looks like. That number "can be easier to ignore if you don’t see the faces and names and stories of the solar workers we’re talking about," she said.