Federal trade officials are moving ahead with Suniva's controversial trade complaint, which could double the price of solar modules imported into the U.S.
In April, the bankrupt solar manufacturer filed a rare petition under Section 201 of the 1974 Trade Act, claiming that imported cells and modules had caused "significant harm" to America's solar manufacturing base.
Suniva requested a four-year tariff schedule on crystalline-silicon solar products imported from anywhere in the world: "Thus, petitioner seeks a recommendation to the President of four years of relief of an initial duty rate on cells of $0.40/watt, along with an initial floor price on modules of $0.78/watt." Those prices would destroy the economics of many planned solar projects.
The International Trade Commission (ITC) officially accepted the petition on Tuesday, concluding that Suniva is representative of the entire domestic solar industry.
The ITC is labeling the investigation "extraordinarily complicated," giving the trade body extra time to determine harm. A decision will be reached by September 22, and a recommendation for action will be sent to President Trump by November 13.
The range of crystalline-silicon solar photovoltaic (CSPV) products covered under review by trade officials is vast:
The articles covered by this investigation are CSPV cells, whether or not partially or fully assembled into other products, including, but not limited to, modules, laminates, panels, and building-integrated materials. The investigation covers crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells of a thickness equal to or greater than 20 micrometers, having a p/n junction (or variant thereof) formed by any means, whether or not the cell has undergone other processing, including, but not limited to cleaning, etching, coating, and/or addition of materials (including, but not limited to, metallization and conductor patterns) to collect and forward the electricity that is generated by the cell.
Included in the scope of the investigation are photovoltaic cells that contain crystalline silicon in addition to other photovoltaic materials. This includes, but is not limited to, passivated emitter rear contact (“PERC”) cells, heterojunction with intrinsic thin-layer (“HIIT”) cells, and other so-called “hybrid” cells.
Articles under consideration also may be described at the time of importation as components for final finished products that are assembled after importation, including, but not limited to, modules, laminates, panels, and building-integrated materials.
If the ITC agrees with Suniva's price recommendations for imported products, module pricing would increase, reverting to 2012 levels. That could set development back by years.
"Those prices increase current U.S. utility single-axis tracking system pricing from $1.08/Wdc to $1.56/Wdc -- which is more or less 2015 system pricing," said Ben Gallagher, a solar analyst with GTM Research.
On Monday, Bloomberg reported that Suniva's creditor, SQN Capital Management, wrote a letter to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce hinting that a buyout of Suniva's assets would put the case to rest.
"The case would disappear if Chinese companies bought $55 million in manufacturing equipment," wrote SQN president Jeremiah Silkowski.
"SQN would have no interest in providing additional funding to Suniva" if the Chinese bought up SQN's stake, wrote Silkowski.
The Solar Energy Industries Association is coming out strong against the case, vowing to fight it in anyway it can.
SEIA President Abby Hopper singled out Suniva as a unique problem: "They're not representative of the domestic industry as they have defined it. [...] SEIA is going to lead the fight on this petition every step of the way."
But ITC officials disagreed.
Now that the case is officially underway, how likely is action?
"Over 50 percent," said John Gurley, a trade lawyer and partner at Arent Fox LLP, during a briefing call when the petition was first announced last month. "Like every lawyer, I speak with triple caveats. One never knows where this will go. History tells us it's more likely we'll get a remedy than not."
An injury hearing will take place at 9:30 a.m. on August 15 at the International Trade Commission headquarters in Washington, D.C. If the ITC determines harm, an additional hearing on remedy will take place at 9:30 a.m. on October 3.