Executives from eight solar manufacturing companies gathered in Washington, D.C. Wednesday to convince federal officials that tariffs would wipe out tens of thousands of industry jobs. With any luck, they say, the message will be heard by a president who holds the future of U.S. solar in his hands.
The day of lobbying was organized by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) in response to an evolving trade case launched by Suniva and SolarWorld. U.S. trade commissioners ruled last month that imported solar equipment has caused "serious injury" to domestic manufacturers, validating the companies’ claims that cheap imports from Asia have made it impossible for them to compete.
The troubled manufacturers filed their petition 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.
In a final hearing on Tuesday, the International Trade Commission heard nearly 10 hours of testimony that it will use to decide what trade remedies to recommend.
SEIA wouldn’t reveal names, but said it had scheduled lobbying meetings with White House trade officials and people at the Department of Energy, Department of Commerce and the U.S. Trade Representative.
“We’re speaking with all those folks who have a seat at the table and will help advise the president on what the right decision is,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, SEIA's president and CEO. “I think we have a good chance of having our message reach the president.”
Last month, an industry source reportedly told Axios that lobbying outreach could include the vice president's office, White House trade advisor Peter Navarro, White House energy advisor Mike Catanzaro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
“I’m actually missing my first board meeting in 20 years. That’s how important this is to us,” said Constantino Nicolaou, CEO of Massachusetts-based PanelClaw, who spoke with GTM between meetings on Wednesday.
“If Suniva and SolarWorld get what they’re asking for, we would be forced to move everything overseas,” said Nicolaou, whose company makes flat-roof racking for commercial buildings. PanelClaw has 26 employees and contracts with domestic steel manufacturers in upstate New York, Arizona and the Rust Belt.
Nicolaou spearheaded an opposition letter sent to the ITC in August that was signed by 27 solar equipment manufacturers and suppliers. The letter asked commissioners to reject Suniva’s request for global safeguard measures, saying such actions would seriously endanger manufacturing jobs at their factories.
Suniva and SolarWorld are seeking a tariff of 25 cents per watt on CSPV cells -- down from an initial 40 cents per watt request -- and 32 cents per watt on CSPV modules.
Suniva also requested a floor price on all imported solar products of 74 cents per watt, while SolarWorld proposed an import quota starting at 0.22 gigawatts for cells and 5.7 gigawatts for modules. Both manufacturers said they believe an effective remedy must include two parts: either the requested tariff plus Suniva’s requested module floor price, or the requested tariff plus SolarWorld’s requested quota.
Based on estimations by the SEIA, the proposed remedies would destroy between 48,000 and 63,000 American solar jobs next year, and between 60,000 and 84,000 jobs by 2020.
“Most of the people we end up talking to…do not understand both sides of the story," said Bill Vietas, the president of Cincinnati-based mounting manufacturer RBI Solar. "They hear only about the solar module side of the story and about two companies that can’t compete.”
Vietas said he told a DOE official that the proposed trade measures would crush employment at RBI, where layoffs could be as high as 50 percent. RBI directly employs 165 workers and uses more than 300 subcontractors. The company has already seen multiple projects postponed and canceled due to uncertainty surrounding the trade case, but that may be “just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
Other companies that lobbied on Wednesday include S-5!, SunPower, Anchor Products, OMCO Solar, GameChange Solar and DuPont.
The people they spoke to “seemed very interested in the range of these manufacturing companies,” said Hopper. “A couple of them became more aware of the variety of manufacturing jobs in the solar industry -- that it’s not simply the cell and module manufacturing sector, but it’s obviously a much broader sector. So I think that’s incredibly helpful.”
More than 38,000 people work in U.S. solar manufacturing, according to the latest survey data. Some 600 facilities produce supplies for the industry, including steel and polysilicon, inverters and trackers, cells and panels, and racking and mounting systems. Looking at the broader ecosystem, tariffs on imported cells and modules could have far-reaching effects.
In its brief to the ITC, SEIA asked commissioners to recommend that President Donald Trump create a license fee system for imported CSPV cells and modules. Under that arrangement, fees collected from foreign manufacturers would be delivered directly to American manufacturers instead of going to the U.S. Treasury.
“I think this is a more finely crafted solution to what [President Trump] cares about,” said Hopper.
SEIA is part of The Energy Trade Action Coalition, a group that formed in July to fight the Section 201 petition. ETAC has pledged to “actively engage” with the Trump administration and Congress “to educate them on the importance of maintaining access to globally priced products.” The coalition includes a variety of trade associations, companies, organizations and even conservative policy groups like the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council.
“The size of the coalition is actually fairly overwhelming,” said Hopper. “All of those folks are communicating, advocating and making our points known within the administration.”
Historically, sitting presidents have issued trade remedies in just over half of 201 cases where the ITC found injury. Many fear that Trump, who has reportedly been pushing for more tariffs on imported goods, will be eager to impose stiff penalties.
“I’m hopeful because I think the truth and the logic of the situation will prevail, as long as we continue to speak in a reasonable and truthful manner and talk about the reality of the situation,” said Vietas.
The ITC will prepare a final report with its remedy recommendations for the president by November 13, after which Trump will have 60 days to decide what remedy to impose. SEIA has another lobbying day scheduled with its board at the end of October.