Tariff threat could foreshadow grim 2018 for solar industry



The U.S. solar industry could face a grim 2018 if President Donald Trump slaps stiff tariffs on imported solar panels, according to solar industry and trade experts.

The U.S. International Trade Commission ruling Friday that domestic manufacturing had suffered injury because of solar equipment imports will give Trump the opportunity to hit the Chinese companies that own the lion's share of the global production of photovoltaic cells and modules. Proponents of steep trade barriers sought by Suniva and SolarWorld USA argue the U.S. capacity to build panels will disappear under the wave of imports from Asian countries.

But others, including the solar industry lobby group, warn that instituting tariffs or a floor price as Suniva has recommended would cost 88,000 jobs, double the price of solar installations and set the industry's growth back by years. And the last time the U.S. used the same trade tactic — under former President George W. Bush — could serve as a warning to the Trump administration.

The U.S. installed 14.8 gigawatts of solar capacity last year, fed by imports of 12.8 gigawatts of solar panels in 2016, according to the Energy Information Administration. U.S. production capacity of solar modules is less than 3.0 GW, leaving a gap that will require solar installers to rely on imports to meet the demand, even if companies that may be considering building U.S. manufacturing plants decide to shift operations to the U.S.

"U.S. manufacturing is extremely unlikely to fill in the gap between supply and demand in 2018. A near-zero chance," said Tom Werner, CEO of solar manufacturer and project developer SunPower Corp., who opposes the tariffs.

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