US-China War Bad News for Home Solar

Now that the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency have issued rules regulating dirty emissions from power plants, you’d figure that the global solar sector would go supernova. You’d be wrong.

Less than a week after the release of that reportedly historic plan to take catastrophic global warming seriously, the U.S. Department of Commerce slapped preliminary tariffs ranging from 18-35 percent on Chinese solar module imports from Trina Solar, Suntech, Yingli Solar and more. And they threaten to freeze whatever hard-fought progress the sector has made so far, most notably on the home front.

“These damaging tariffs will increase costs for U.S. solar consumers and, in turn, slow the adoption of solar within the United States,” Solar Energy Industries Association CEO Rhone Resch warned in a statement. “Ironically, the tariffs may provide little to no direct benefit to the sole petitioner SolarWorld, as we saw in the 2012 investigations. It’s time to end this needless litigation with a negotiated solution that addresses SolarWorld’s trade allegations while ensuring the continued growth of the U.S. solar market

The solar war backstory is lame enough to keep short. SolarWorld — a German company whose CEO, Frank Asbeck, ironically supports lowering Germany’s feed-in-tariff incentives 10-15 percent — brought a case against Chinese manufacturers importing ingots and wafers from Taiwan to circumvent 2012 duties. Because the Chinese wisely and heavily subsidize their solar and other renewable industries, American and European manufacturers are evidently under the impression that they lack market competitiveness, rather than sensible support from their respective governments. If they did, perhaps America and Europe, not China, would be the world’s leading installer of photovoltaics.

But they are not, and for good reason. For example, the White House’s ballyhooed power plant regulations allow states to choose natural gas and nuclear development over much cleaner solar. In fact, the Obama administration’s own green adviser John Podesta said history will not positively judge the White House’s carbon plan, while Carbon Tax Center economist Charles Komanoff, argued that most of its “carbon cutting will come from relying on fracked natural gas, bringing a surge in ‘fugitive’ methane emissions that will undo the carbon cuts.”

These deadly contradictions undermine both the EPA and Commerce’s purported goals of increasing renewable energy and combating global warming, despite half-hearted criticism of China’s CO2 footprint. That’s the global picture, but the domestic one is just as disturbing. The move has already forced SolarCity, America’s leading PV installer which mostly uses panels from Chinese manufacturers Trina and Yingli, to instead sign a last-minute deal with Norway’s REC.

“Our high quality, tariff-free, bankable solar modules are an excellent fit for the United States’ largest solar power provider,” REC’s senior VP Arndt E. Lutz cleverly explained in a press statement on the deal, announced the day after Commerce’s tariffs landed.

American solar customers will notice other changes than the type of solar panels SolarCity and other resellers put on their homes and businesses. The trade war also threatens to slow down the solar sector’s accelerating momentum, just when it is needed most. Costs could rise as global goodwill collapses into greedy spats over who gets paid to solarize the United States, whose percentage of total generation is paltry compared to China. Given that cratering costs have fueled solar’s recent explosion, Commerce’s inflammation of an unnecessary dispute is the opposite of a good move, when coming together for the greater global goodwill is solar’s primary goal.

“Over the past few months, SEIA has facilitated settlement discussions between Chinese solar manufacturers and SolarWorld,” Resch explained. “The goal of these discussions is to develop an industry recommendation to help jump-start government-to-government negotiations. Although we’ve succeeded in establishing direct communications between the parties — and are working with all segments of the industry to find a consensus solution — we’re quickly running out of time. It’s time to get serious about resolving this ongoing dispute, before irreparable damage is done to the U.S. solar industry. We’re strongly urging all parties to set aside their grievances; redouble efforts to find a solution that benefits all segments of the industry; and end this potentially costly and divisive conflict.”

This article appeared at Solar Energy>