A Monday announcement that the Trump administration would consider adding a 10 percent tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods has journalists, industry and political commentators crying “trade war.”
Over the past week, the Trump administration and the Chinese government have traded promises of new and greater tariffs on an array of goods. Some solar and battery products were included in an announcement last week of a 25 percent tariff on $50 billion in Chinese products, but thus far any impact on the clean technology industry looks to be a soft blow.
Ironically, the trauma from Section 201 solar tariffs stacked on top of existing anti-dumping and countervailing duties has blunted any further impact of tariffs on Chinese imports.
“A lot of manufacturers built up capacity in other regions, primarily in Southeast Asia, basically so they could avoid importing cells and modules from China specifically,” said MJ Shiao, head of Americas at GTM Research. “China is an increasingly small portion of imports and, with Section 201 in place, it pretty much killed prospects for anyone competitively importing from China to the U.S.”
According to data from the U.S. International Trade Commission, the dollar value of imports of Chinese solar cells assembled into modules or panels has decreased 66.8 percent between 2017 and 2018 to date. While the dollar value of Chinese cells not assembled into modules or panels has increased this year, Chinese imports are still only valued at $280,000 — a total of 1 to 2 megawatts — so far in 2018.
In January, the administration announced a 30 percent tariff on imported solar cells and modules that steps down over time.
For battery storage, the products included on the latest tariff lists account for a small portion of U.S. imports according to Ravi Manghani, director of energy storage at GTM Research. But the new tariffs do have the potential to squeeze production in Southeast Asia, an increasingly essential region in the global solar market.
“Those manufacturers need to allocate to both the U.S. and the EU, and everywhere else that has a tariff on China,” said Shiao. “That adds to the demand pressure on Southeast Asian cell and module supply.”
According to Credit Suisse, though, “the oversupplied solar sector has enough non-China capacity to supply to the U.S. market if required.” GTM Research also projects an oversupply in the market based on recent policy changes in China that will constrict the country’s demand.
The potential for additional tariffs did impact solar manufacturer stocks, which were down 5 to 10 percent on Friday, according to Credit Suisse. With the Trump administration holding strong on its tough on trade agenda, those types of shocks may continue even as Credit Suisse said the reaction to the new tariffs was “overblown.”
All of these impacts, though, remain somewhat up in the air.
Shiao said the codes included in the tariff announcement do not specify whether solar products are specifically targeted, as they’re lumped together with other semiconductor devices like LEDs.
If the new tariffs do include solar products, some consumer goods are likely to be impacted more than cells and modules. Products like solar garden lights or solar-powered fans, according to Shiao, are rolled in with other solar products and often use Chinese cells. Forcing that portion of the market to source cells outside of China could change prices, or manufacturers could seek an exemption.
The added tariffs are unlikely to impact companies setting up shop in the U.S. in the wake of the Section 201 decision, unless they plan to import cells from China for module assembly in the U.S.
“This kind of kills that route,” said Shiao. “The economics already seemed tight, so I can’t imagine you could stack both those tariffs and continue manufacturing competitively in the U.S.”
PV Magazine reported that neither SunPower (which recently acquired SolarWorld Americas) nor JinkoSolar would source cells from China. Hanwha Q Cells Korea Corporation, which is planning a facility in Georgia, told Greentech Media the company would use cells from its factories in Korea or Malaysia.
President Trump signaled the tariffs will go into effect if “China refuses to change its practices” on what he categorizes as unfair trading and intellectual property theft. Authorities in China, meanwhile, have indicated they will not bend to “blackmail” from the administration.