In just five months, Suniva went from being another victim of a tough market to Solar Enemy Number One.
The journey to industry pariah began when Suniva filed a rare Section 201 trade complaint under the 1974 Trade Act, which seeks to impose tariffs on imported cells and a module floor price. That remedy could eliminate tens of gigawatts of solar installations compared to business as usual, according to GTM Research.
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) quickly picked up the lead in opposing that move, which has already caused uncertainty and affected prices as developers lock up modules.
(Editor's note: SEIA and GTM Research are partners on Solar Market Insight, a regularly published report series on the American solar industry.)
The animus reached its apex in the opening session of the SEIA-sponsored 2017 Solar Power International conference, which quickly became an unrestrained bash-fest against Suniva and fellow petitioner SolarWorld.
“This is really a case about two companies that are saying, ‘We can’t compete, and we need help,’” said SEIA President Abigail Ross Hopper in her introduction.
Then a cadre of solar executives proceeded to rip apart both companies' reputations, arguing that their alleged incompetence, untrustworthiness and penchant for deceit were more to blame for their business outcomes than was pressure from cheap foreign imports.
The takedowns drew upon personal interactions between the speakers' companies and the trade case petitioners.
Swinerton Renewable Energy decided to use SolarWorld modules for a 75-megawatt project in Oregon, where the latter company has a manufacturing facility. The idea was to utilize local content for the project, which was just a small part of Swinerton's installations for the year.
"Every one of those SolarWorld modules came from Thailand," said George Hershman, senior vice president of Swinerton. "Even though we tried to use their product in a utility-scale project, they couldn't supply the product."
Sunrun Executive Chairman Ed Fenster listed a longer litany of offenses by the two petitioners: They didn't submit to standard high-quality product testing, they failed to meet timelines, suffered recalls, sent broken panels, didn't honor warranty claims and delivered panels from other countries instead of the expected "Made in the USA," he said.
"It's a shame that we've got a couple of management teams that want to hold the industry and the planet hostage because they can't accept their own mistakes," Fenster said.
Suniva and SolarWorld don't have a clear end in sight, argued Fenster. Suniva investor SQN bankrolled the petition in an effort to recoup its lost investment, but that doesn't mean the bankrupt manufacturer would be around to profit from the outcome.
"Neither company has put forward a credible plan that shows access to the capital necessary to do this," Fenster said.
If they couldn't achieve sustainable business in the boom years of 2015 and 2016, it's hard to see them "magically" start to support themselves in the current tighter market after the case wraps up, Hershman said.
"They don't have the capability," he said. "You need scale. We've all driven our companies to scale to drive down cost."
If Suniva pulls through, then, it is unlikely to be received with any enthusiasm by its fellow solar industry members. Bizarrely, the two companies asking for trade protections in the interest of American manufacturing are not even American-owned companies. Suniva has Chinese ownership, and SolarWorld's is German.
A great many American manufacturers, though, stand to lose business and jobs if the two companies succeed, the panelists said. That includes racking manufacturers, but also the people up the supply chain who produce equipment necessary for the solar industry, like pile drivers, or even steel.
The Steel Manufacturers Association views the matter differently, however. Sensing parallels to its own Section 201 case from 2001, the association endorsed Suniva's petition last week.
"The U.S. solar manufacturing industry is in crisis and is struggling for survival," Steel Manufacturers Association President Philip Bell wrote in a letter to international trade commissioners. "This is a story that the commission has seen before -- global imports destroying American industry -- and one that will surely repeat itself absent relief."
The assembled representatives of the solar industry rejected that view. In their telling, Suniva and SolarWorld might be in trouble individually, but tariffs that make solar power far less competitive in the energy market will create a much graver crisis than any current industry headwinds.
"Traditionally, when price goes up, volume goes down," Fenster deadpanned at one point. "I think I remember that from college."
Whatever the facts of the case, the SMA decision shows that Suniva's arguments resonate with some listeners. Now all eyes turn to the trade commissioners, who must make their determination of injury by September 22.