Trade officials, and Trump, will consider tariffs

By David Ferris | 05/24/2017 07:49 AM EDT

It is now likely that President Trump will have a say in the trajectory of the U.S. solar industry, after trade officials yesterday set in motion a proposal for steep duties on imports.

The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) gave notice that it will consider a petition by Suniva Inc., a bankrupt solar manufacturer in Georgia, to place tariffs on the most common kind of photovoltaic solar cells imported from around the globe.

The proposal has been a controversial one, pitting a single manufacturer, Suniva, against almost the entire solar industry.


ITC’s green light is important because it raises the likelihood that the subject will become a political football. Under the trade law that Suniva invoked, the tariff issue will head in early November to the president and give him wide latitude to act (Energywire, May 8).

While Suniva sees Trump as a potential savior, many in the solar industry worry that the president could use the trade case as a convenient weapon, allowing him to take a tough stance on trade while slowing the growth of solar power and abetting his preferred sector, coal.

Suniva claims it went bankrupt because of deceitful practices by Chinese solar manufacturers, which escaped earlier tariffs by shifting their manufacturing to third countries. Earlier this year, the company said in its complaint, those prices fell to levels where no U.S. manufacturer can compete.

"We are pleased that the Commission has taken this next step and initiated the investigation of this case. The company looks forward to working with the Commission as our Petition moves forward," said Suniva’s executive vice president, Matt Card, in a statement.

It was the first public word in a month from Suniva, which has been opposed by every quarter in the solar industry, including the industry’s main trade group, other domestic solar module manufacturers and even the Chinese company that owns most of Suniva’s stock (Energywire, May 17).

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), which represents most of the solar industry, says that more expensive imports would raise the cost of solar as a whole and threaten the industry’s 260,000 jobs.

"The International Trade Commission’s decision to consider Suniva’s petition for a lifeline could be bad news for hundreds of thousands of American workers in the solar industry and may jeopardize billions of dollars in investment in communities across the country," said SEIA’s CEO, Abigail Ross Hopper, in a statement.

"Setting high price floors and exorbitant tariffs is a blunt instrument that would cripple one of the brightest spots in America’s economy," the statement continued.

Many in the solar industry had hoped that a spate of bad news for Suniva, including a revelation that the financier driving the bankruptcy sought a buyout from China, would lead the ITC to dismiss the case (Energywire, May 22).

The tariffs that the ITC will consider are more limited than Suniva originally proposed. In its original request in April, Suniva asked for trade barriers against imports of both solar cells and modules. Last week, Suniva dropped its request on modules and focused just on cells.

The ITC said it would make an injury determination by Sept. 22 and would forward its report to the president by Nov. 13.