The US International Trade Commission (ITC) was expected to rule yesterday on a complaint that is intended to protect the US solar industry and may hinder more companies than it helps.
The commission is set to make a preliminary decision on whether solar products imported from Taiwan and China harmed US producers, a protectionist strategy sought by a US panel manufacturer that is part of the industry’s slowest-growing segment.
Duties would help manufacturers including the US unit of SolarWorld AG, which competes with low-cost panels from Asia and filed a complaint on Dec. 31 last year with the US Department of Commerce and the commission.
Trade barriers could raise prices on imported panels and hurt developers such as SolarCity Corp, which buy them to satisfy booming demand for rooftop photovoltaic systems.
“It’s infuriating what SolarWorld is trying to do,” said John Berger, chief executive officer of Sunnova Energy Corp, a Houston-based rooftop solar developer. “It’s a disservice to the industry. It will be negative for US employment,” he added.
SolarWorld is acting on behalf of 244 US solar companies and disputes the notion that duties will boost prices.
“Anyone who claims prices will definitely go up is holding water for the Chinese manufacturers,” said Ben Santarris, a spokesman for the company’s Hillsboro, Oregon-based US unit, in an interview on Wednesday.
“We hope to restore true competition. We cannot compete with the Chinese government. We’re open to any solution that gets the central Chinese government out of our marketplace,” he said.
This is not SolarWorld’s first trade suit. The US Commerce Department imposed duties in May 2012 of as much as 250 percent on solar cells produced in China, in response to a complaint filed by its US unit on behalf of US solar manufacturers.
Chinese manufacturers responded by buying some solar cells from Taiwan, allowing them to avoid most of the duties. The current case would expand the protections by applying duties to products from Taiwan.
Solar imports from China were worth about US$2.1 billion in 2012 and from Taiwan about US$513 million, according to the Commerce Department.
“A loophole in the trade remedy in our US cases enabled China to circumvent import duties,” Frank Asbeck, founder and chief executive officer of Bonn-based SolarWorld, said in a open letter on Wednesday last week to US President Barack Obama. “Some in the United States want only the cheapest solar panels they can find, without regard for issues of fairness — or product quality.”
Out of almost 143,000 jobs in the US solar industry last year, about 21 percent were manufacturing positions, according to a report last month from the Solar Foundation. That figure increased by 0.4 percent from 2012, the slowest in the industry.
Project development jobs increased 52 percent and installers swelled 22 percent. The two segments made up 57 percent of US solar jobs, and should comprise 59 percent this year, while manufacturing slips to 19 percent.
Both sides acknowledge the loss of solar manufacturing jobs to China and disagree over how to address the issue.