Coming off a record year for U.S. solar installations in 2016, the first quarter of 2017 wasn’t so bad either, according to data released by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the industry’s lead trade group. The U.S. saw the installation of more than 2 gigawatts, or billion watts, of new solar capacity, a quarter of it on individual rooftops, according to a Thursday report by SEIA and GTM Research. … Solar now provides about 1.6 percent of U.S. electricity, according to SEIA — reflecting 44.7 total installed gigawatts in the U.S. — and should reach 2 percent by the end of this year. Wind supplies about 6 percent — but solar has had very rapid growth lately.
Opponents of the Suniva-SolarWorld trade case have a new, and perhaps surprising, set of allies: conservative policy groups. The Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have come out against the recent petition to impose tariffs on imported crystalline silicon solar products, joining in a coalition with the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and others. Mounting dissent from across the political spectrum could help convince Republican President Donald Trump to refuse the introduction of trade barriers.
A broad industry and conservative coalition launched Friday to fight potential tariffs on imported solar panels. Energy Trade Action Coalition includes mainly non-solar companies, along with trade associations, utilities, retailers, unions, conservative groups and others. … “Tariffs meant to protect one industry can, and often do, have significant damaging effects on other domestic industries,” Tori Whiting, research associate at the Heritage Foundation, said in a statement announcing the new coalition.
Boosting U.S. manufacturing is a laudable goal, and a thriving solar industry would potentially help balance out job losses in dirtier energy technologies like coal. But putting a tariff on solar panels would also risk slowing the expansion of solar power in the country, including here in S.C. where solar power installations increased by almost 300 percent last year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
The S.C. Solar Business Alliance sent letters to U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott last month asking both Republicans to oppose a request by a bankrupt solar panel manufacturer that could place hefty tariffs on cheaper imports from Mexico, Canada and China. … The petition for trade relief, filed by the bankrupt manufacturer Suniva with the International Trade Commission, already has split the United States’ solar industry. Bigger manufacturers, such as Solarworld, the country’s largest producer of panels, is supporting the request, while smaller-scale solar installers oppose it since cost-boosting tariffs could ruin much of their business. “We do know that any actions that artificially raise the price of solar modules will have a substantial negative impact on one of South Carolina’s fastest growing industries, wiping out years of growth in the process,” Jarrett Branham, the vice chairman of South Carolina’s solar business alliance, told the senators.
Proposed tariffs of 40 cents per watt on solar cells and a minimum price of 78 cents a watt on solar photovoltaic (PV) modules would drive up prices for solar panels for residential consumers, corporate customers, and electric utilities. This is after prices have dropped significantly over the last five years. The cost of PV modules dropped nearly 34 percent in just the first half of 2016, according to GTM Research.
Suniva argues that because of the global nature of the solar trade, the American manufacturing industry needs blanket safeguards from the trade commission that would apply to the crystalline silicon cells and modules manufactured anywhere outside the United States. … But opponents say the case threatens many of the hundreds of thousands of workers whose jobs could be eliminated in an industry slowdown. Those include people who install, finance and oversee the development of large-scale solar projects, as well as manufacturers of support structures for the panels and devices that regulate the flow of electricity from them. According to a report from GTM Research, a consultant firm that tracks the solar industry and provides data and analysis for the industry’s main trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, which is aggressively fighting the petition, a finding in Suniva’s favor could reduce expected installations over the next five years by 50 percent.
The effects to the American solar industry could be “devastating,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, the CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a national organization. The group, which is fighting the case in Washington, D.C., estimates Texas could lose more than 6,000 jobs in the construction, wiring and development segments of the solar industry if the price of solar panels rises. The cheaper imports have fueled growth in Texas. In 2016, the industry added 2,366 workers in the state, a 34 percent bump from the previous year, according to data from the Solar Foundation, a solar advocacy nonprofit. That growth could be just the beginning: The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which runs the state’s electricity grid, projects that solar power could contribute up to 28,100 megawatts to the grid within the next 10 to 15 years, an enormous increase from the roughly 1,000 megawatts currently on the grid. “Solar in Texas is really coming on strong. We have seen tremendous cost reductions over the past several years,” said Charlie Hemmeline, the executive director of the Texas Solar Power Association, a state-based industry group.
GTM Research crunched the numbers based on Suniva’s and SolarWorld’s requested penalties for imported solar equipment ($0.40/watt tariff for cells and a floor price of $0.78/watt on modules) and found that they would cause unprecedented demand destruction. If Suniva’s and SolarWorld’s proposal is approved by the U.S. International Trade Commission and President Trump, there will be a new minimum price on imported crystalline silicon solar modules and a new tariff on imported cells. Put together, the U.S. could miss out on more than 47 gigawatts of solar installations. That’s more than what the U.S. solar market has brought on-line to date.
The US solar industry could lose a third of its workforce, or an estimated 88,000 jobs, if the US Government and the US International Trade Commission rules in favor of Suniva’s request for a tariff and price floor. Simply put, Suniva, a US manufacturer of high-efficiency crystalline silicon photovoltaic solar cells and high-power solar modules, has petitioned the US International Trade Commission (ITC) to place a tariff on all imported solar cells and to set a price floor for nearly every imported panel. The company’s argument is that it cannot compete with foreign rivals — obviously, considering that the company, majority-owned by a Chinese firm, declared bankruptcy back in April.