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solar panels

Solar Trade Wars Heating Up, Adding Risks to Both Jobs and the Environment

solar panelsAre foreign companies flooding the US market with cheap solar photovoltaic components and hurting the competitiveness of US solar panel makers? That’s what the U.S. International Trade Commission will determine — a decision that could lead to import tariffs on such parts.

The investigation into cheap imports comes at the behest of a bankrupt solar panel maker called Suniva that said it is unable to compete with the Chinese. The Georgia-based company is asking for a minimum import price of 78 cents per watt for modules and 40 cents per watt for cells, which would effectively double import prices. The ITC will finish its analysis in September, at which point the ultimate decision for implementing such a tariff falls onto the president of the United States.

“We are pleased that the Commission has taken this next step and initiated the investigation of this case,” Matt Card, a Suniva executive, said in a statement.

The company initially filed the claim in April, saying  “While this action is not undertaken lightly, the fact is the American [crystalline silicon photovoltaic] cells and modules industry is disintegrating,” as reported by The Hill. “This industry simply cannot survive in a market where foreign CSPV cell and module imports into the United States have unexpectedly exploded and prices have collapsed.”

During the campaign, Trump said that he would favor American businesses that he felt had been upended by unfair trade competition. That could mean adding tariffs to all products coming from those countries thought to be in violation of trade pacts.

However, such tactics would also mean that US produced solar panels would get taxed as they seek foreign markets. As a result, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) that represent solar makers here has come out against it, saying it would “cripple” one of the “brightest spots” on the energy horizon and in the American economy: it puts 260,000 jobs at risk, on top of all of the ongoing projects here that would use Chinese-produced solar panels.

“While we respect the ITC’s decision to evaluate this claim on its merits, SEIA will remain at the forefront of the opposition to Suniva’s requested remedies,” the solar association said in a statement. “Our goal throughout this proceeding will remain focused on developing more equitable and sustainable ways to boost American solar manufacturing that benefit many companies instead of just a few and allows the entire solar industry to continue to grow in this country.”

China has long been accused of subsidizing its solar sector in the form of low-interest loans. The result led to an 80% fall in solar panel prices between 2008 and 2013. Suniva is not the only solar maker to feel the pinch. So too has Sun Edison that filed for bankruptcy last year.

“They have a centralized government and terrible pollution problems. They understand the need to get away from coal and to invest in clean energy,” Wyatt Metzger, a scientist at the National Energy Renewable Lab told the Scientific American, referring to China.

But a 2016 report by the US Department of Energy said that solar energy could provide 14% of U.S. electricity demand by 2030 and 27% by 2050. The way to break into market, it added, is to be more inventive — to come up with a better mousetrap. That would then reduce CO2 emissions both here and around the world: 8% by 2020 and 28% by 2050.

“Achieving this target is expected to make the cost of solar energy competitive with the cost of other energy sources, paving the way for rapid, large-scale adoption of solar electricity across the United States,” the report said.

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