KCBJ Reports – Tradewind CEO: U.S. tariffs would cloud solar industry

Aug 23, 2017, 2:28pm CDT


A petition filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission by a bankrupt solar panel manufacturer raised Tradewind Energy Inc. CEO Rob Freeman’s level of concern so high that he immediately took it upon himself to start fighting back.

Suniva, an Atlanta-based manufacturer of solar panels, was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 17. Soon afterward, it filed a petition with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), alleging that the company went bankrupt because of Asian manufacturers dumping product on the market for less than cost. Suniva argues that this action is an unfair trade practice that is killing U.S. solar panel manufacturers. The company asked the ITC to recommend that the Trump administration institute a four-year tariff on imported solar panels and set a price floor for the industry.

If this action is approved, Freeman said, it would devastate the market for Lenexa-based Tradewind Energy, which develops utility-scale, alternative-power generation sites. So he joined the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) board and started to fight back.

“The level of tariffs and the price floor they are seeking would amount to more than a 200 percent increase in the cost of solar panels,” Freeman said. “So it would basically wind the clock back to several years ago when we were all hoping that solar could get there. It would be devastating to the industry. So much of the industry is based on the economics of the product. With that kind of a price war and tariff, it would basically make solar power uneconomical overnight.”

The SEIA estimates that the action would kill about 88,000 jobs in the industry, from sales to project developers and construction crews. That’s about one-third of the jobs in the U.S. solar energy industry. Conversely, the tariffs are estimated to save only about 1,000 manufacturing jobs because the U.S. isn’t a major player in the market.

“Suniva is just a badly managed company that failed to compete,” Freeman said. “Other companies in the U.S. have successfully competed, and those companies have not joined the case, which to me is the strongest indication that this isn’t dumping of panels in the U.S. market.”

First Solar and SunPower are U.S. solar panel manufacturers in the global Top 10 for production; they did not join the case.

Suniva is supported in its petition by Oregon-based SolarWorld. They say about 30 U.S. solar panel manufacturers have gone out of business in the past five years. They find it hard to believe that is happening because U.S. manufacturers are bad at business, but Asian manufacturers are brilliant.

Just the specter of a possibility that President Trump could impose tariffs already has had a significant effect on the market in the past few months. There has been a run on solar panels, especially those made in the U.S., that would be unaffected by a potential tariff. That’s causing costs to rise. In turn, that raises the cost of projects and lowers the benefit to consumers.

The SEIA has been pressing members of Congress to write to the ITC and Trump to recommend against tariffs.

“Unfortunately, the ITC makes a recommendation directly to the Trump administration, which then has sole power and authority to impose or not impose a tariff and, if so, how much,” Freeman said. “Congress actually has no ability to control any of this. But it’s critical that the public and our elected officials let the Trump administration know what a bad decision this would be. Thankfully, we have some of our local Kansas delegation weighing in on this and a very bipartisan effort under way in both the Senate and the House.”