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International Trade commission ruling pits panel manufacturing jobs against cost savings from cheaper panel imports

COURTESY OF  CASSANDRA PROFITA, OPB/EARTHFIX - John Clason loads solar cells into a tray to be made into panels at the SolarWorld Americas manufacturing plant  in Hillsboro.At the SolarWorld Americas plant in Hillsboro, John Clason loads a stack of solar cells into a machine that builds them into panels.

Clason used to be a cabinet maker, but he switched industries after the 2008 recession.

"The job I had dried up," he said. "So I looked around, and I thought solar panels would be great — the wave of the future, you know?"

But the panels he's making here can't compete with a surge of cheap import panels SolarWorld says are being sold at below-market prices — in violation of trade rules.

Earlier this year, SolarWorld Americas' German parent company declared bankruptcy, and Clason was laid off, along with more than 300 other workers at the factory.

SolarWorld and another manufacturer, Suniva, took their case to the U.S. International Trade Commission, calling for tariffs and quotas on all the solar panels coming in from overseas.

So far, they're winning. On Halloween, the trade commission recommended adding tariffs and quotas to imported solar panels.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO  - SolarWorld's Hillsboro plant floor back in 2010. It's good news for Clayson and other workers who make solar panels, but critics say such trade barriers will hurt the rest of the U.S. solar industry by driving up solar panel prices.

Tim Brightbill, an attorney whose firm is representing SolarWorld, blames Chinese subsidies for fueling global overproduction of solar panels. He said raising the price of imports is the only way to save what's left of U.S. solar panel manufacturing.

Whack-a-mole

"Solarworld and Suniva were the two largest manufacturers in the United States," he said. "We documented more than 30 U.S. solar cell and module manufacturers who were driven out of business in the last five years. These are the last two surviving companies."

SolarWorld won two previous trade cases against China and Taiwan in 2012 and 2014. The company argued those countries were illegally dumping cheap solar panels in the United States.

Brightbill said the tariffs imposed on imports from China and Taiwan were successful, but only for a little while.

"Unfortunately, Chinese companies quickly found a way around those tariffs by building additional capacity in countries like Malaysia and Vietnam and all around the world," he said. "So those duties didn't apply to the goods from this new manufacturing capacity anymore."

To address this "whack-a-mole" problem, Brightbill said, SolarWorld now is asking for tariffs that would apply to all imported solar panels.

A few weeks ago, when the International Trade Commission first ruled in SolarWorld's favor, Clason got a call from SolarWorld.

"He said they were ramping up again and was I going to be interested in coming back? And I said, yeah — absolutely."

Killing solar jobs?

But solar panel installers don't want to lose the price advantage that comes with cheaper imports.

"Because the price difference has become bigger and the quality is not much different, more and more installers have started using foreign-made modules," said Chet Zimmer, company director for solar panel installer Energy Solutions.

Most of his customers are "pocketbook environmentalists," Zimmer said. "They want to do what's right and install sustainable solar power, but only if it makes sense financially."

The tariffs requested by SolarWorld and Suniva would roughly double the price of imported solar panels, but the tariffs recommended by the trade commission were significantly less than that, Zimmer said.

"If we can buy them for less, we'll pass that savings along to our customer, but their project costs are going to be more next year than they are this year," he said.

Dan Whitten of the Solar Energy Industries Association represents 1,000 businesses across the solar supply chain — from solar panel installers to manufacturers of racks and mounts, batteries and electrical equipment that get installed with them. He said raising the price of imports would kill more solar jobs than it saves.

"What made solar successful over the last 10 years is that we were competing on price," he said. "Our growth has been fantastic. It's created hundreds of thousands of jobs. If this trade case goes through, the growth will be stopped dead in its tracks."

The ball is now in President Donald Trump's court, who gets to make the final decision on whether or not to impose new tariffs and quotas.

This story comes to us from OPB's EarthFix environmental journalism collaboration with public media stations in the Pacific Northwest.

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