Archive for February, 2012

What’s Really Happening to America’s Solar Industry?

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

There’s been a lot of negative press about the American solar industry in the past few months because six companies went bankrupt in 2011, even after receiving government loans.   At least 12 U.S. manufacturers have suffered layoffs, plant shutdowns or bankruptcies over the past two years.  Solyndra and Evergreen Solar are the most well-known because of media coverage about their government loans, but Beacon Power Corp, Mountain Plaza, Stirling Energy Systems, and Spectrawatt Inc. also went out of business, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs.  What’s behind the financial trouble that many of these American solar companies have experienced?

“Dumping” of solar cells and modules produced in China is the real culprit for the financial woes of the American solar industry.  According to a report released by George Washington University in December 2011, China’s production of solar photovoltaic cells and modules has grown from 1 gigawatt (GW) to 20 GW in three years, and its industry now accounts for more than 50 percent of the global market.  During the same period, prices for solar modules decreased to $1.40 per watt and may go down as low as $1 per watt.  It is clear that over capacity in both purified silicon feedstock and module manufacturing have played a key role in the recent major price declines.  The annual market for solar more than doubled between 2009 and 2010.  For 2011, estimates of total market range from 21 to 24, which is a 44 percent increase from the year prior.

On October 19, 2011, SolarWorld, the largest U.S. producer of crystalline silicon photovoltaic products, filed antidumping and countervailing duty petitions at the International Trade Commission (ITC) of the Department of Commerce.  The petition alleges that China is unfairly subsidizing its solar manufacturing industry with cash grants, multi-billion dollar preferential loans, raw material discounts, tax incentives, and currency manipulation.  SolarWorld seeks to establish that Chinese companies could not possibly have production costs low enough to be selling modules and cells at their current prices in the U.S.

SolarWorld’s petitions were supported by six other members of the newly formed Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, started by a group of seven U.S. solar manufacturers that has grown to 150 companies representing employing more than 14,650 workers.  However, SolarWorld was the only U.S. manufacturer identified publicly in these petitions because the “unnamed companies are said to fear retaliation from essential Chinese suppliers and customers and, if they have facilities in China, the Chinese government.”

China’s Ministry of Foreign Commerce responded to these petitions as being overly protectionist and a threat to global economic recovery. China’s Suntech, the world’s largest solar panel maker, with manufacturing facilities in Goodyear, Arizona, stated that “a misguided solar trade conflict against China…could threaten the livelihood of the global solar ecosystem, particularly solar jobs in the U.S.”

U. S. opponents of the petition have formed the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE) recruiting 132 solar companies as members representing 13,134 jobs.  Kevin Lapidus, Sr. V. P<> of legal and government affairs for SunEdison, a lead member of CASE, said “Today the solar industry is 100,00 employees of which 57 percent are in the installation business, 21 percent are in sales and distribution, and only 14 percent are in manufacturing.”  These companies benefit from the cheap Chinese products they sell, distribute, and install.

The petitions request that the ITC investigate imports of Chinese crystalline solar cell and modules but exclude thin-film products and solar technology that is not photovoltaic, such as solar thermal products.

The petitions seek relief for the U.S. domestic companies injured by Chinese imports and seek duties to offset Chinese dumping alleged to exceed 100 percent.  “The countervailing duty petition alleges that China illegally subsidizes its solar industry by providing cash grants; discounted polysilicon and aluminum necessary for production of solar panels; heavily discounted land, power and water; multi-billion dollar preferential loans and directed credit; tax exemptions, incentives and rebates; and export grants and insurance. The countervailing duty petition also alleges that China’s currency undervaluation is an illegal subsidy.”

The next step is for the ITC to decide whether the petitions are legally and factually sufficient and are adequately supported by the U.S. industry.  During such investigations, the Commission gathers information from the U.S. industry and the ITC gathers information from the foreign government and industry.

On December 2, 2011, the ITC issued a unanimous preliminary determination that Chinese trade practices are harming the U.S. domestic solar manufacturing industry.  The next step in the trade case will be Commerce’s preliminary determination on whether to levy countervailing import duties to offset the effects of any illegal Chinese subsidies.  The finding of “critical circumstances” means that if the agency imposes preliminary countervailing duties on March 2, the duties will apply to all imports of cells and modules from Chinese exporters that were brought into the United States starting Dec. 3, 2011.

This critical-circumstances ruling marks the first time that Commerce has issued such a finding in advance of a preliminary countervailing duty determination.  Aside from the determination on countervailing duties, the agency is scheduled to issue a separate preliminary ruling on anti-dumping duties on March 27.  Commerce will issue a separate critical-circumstances ruling in the anti-dumping investigation. A final decision from the U. S. ITC can take up to a year.

On February 7, 2012, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory posted a revised research presentation on the NREL website, which CASM praised.  The presentation concludes Chinese production of crystalline silicon solar technology for the U.S. market costs more than U.S. production for the domestic market, when the costs of shipping are included.

CASM contends the findings validate its position that the Chinese solar-manufacturing industry doesn’t enjoy a cost advantage in solar production costs but, rather, benefits from a government-underwritten export campaign designed to injure competition from U.S. manufacturers.

The NREL presentation, “Solar PV Manufacturing Cost Analysis: U.S. Competitiveness in a Global Industry,” concludes that Chinese producers have an inherent cost advantage of no greater than one percent, compared with U.S. producers.  However, when trans-ocean shipping costs are counted, Chinese producers face a 5 percent cost disadvantage, according to the analysis…Massive government subsidies the government says, sponsor the Chinese industrial drive to export about 95 percent of domestic production, a campaign that has already seized 55 percent of global market share.”

“This analysis from the renewable-energy research arm of the U.S. government corroborates our view that an export drive sponsored by the Chinese government is improperly intervening in the U.S. market,” said Gordon Brinser, president of SolarWorld Industries America Inc., based in Oregon.  “Highly efficient U.S. producers like SolarWorld can vie with any company in the world in legal competition.  But the government of China’s illegal trade practices are neither economically nor environmentally sustainable for anyone.  Free trade is trade free of illegal foreign government intervention.”

“We are countering the illegal trade practices of China and its state-sponsored industry only as a first step to reviving renewable-energy competition, manufacturing and jobs and augmenting national energy security and world environmental stewardship,” Brinser said. “All of the advantages of solar should be available to the United States and to the competitive U.S. industry that pioneered this technology.”

Chinese silicon solar PV producers more than doubled their exports of crystalline silicon solar cells and modules in advance of potential U.S. government duties on those imports, according to an evaluation of PIERS’ reports, which are based on US Customs and Border Protection Automated Manifest System data.

“This significant increase in imports demonstrates that the Chinese know they have violated U.S. and international trade rules and are trying to evade the consequences,” said Gordon Brinser, president of SolarWorld Industries America Inc., based in Oregon.  “Year to date, Chinese imports of solar cells and modules in 2011 are up 346 percent by quantity and 138 percent by value. Since 2008, Chinese imports have risen 939 percent by value and 1664 percent by quantity.  This most recent surge of Chinese solar imports gives the U.S. Department of Commerce the evidence it needs not only to make a preliminary determination in our favor, but also to apply a critical-circumstances finding to address this last-minute import surge.”

“The Chinese have made it clear that, contrary to various World Trade Organization agreements they signed 10 years ago, they will employ any means necessary to dominate the American and international solar markets,” Brinser said.  “Rather than reward the Chinese for cheating, Commerce and the International Trade Commission need to take every possible action to enable American manufacturers to compete fairly.”

Most of the solar technology was developed in the U. S., but the Chinese government decided the industry was something it wanted to dominate and provided the financing necessary to its manufacturers to build the capacity to do so enabling China to take a dominant market position. Chinese companies such as LDK Solar, JA Solar, Suntech, and Trina Solar obtained billions of dollars in financing from the China Development Bank in the last five years.

In contrast, the U.S. solar industry has had to rely on a tax credit to fund its expansion until federal stimulus money gave a jolt to the industry.  This funding was given to solar and wind project installers, not manufacturers. Investor advisor, Travis Hoium wrote, “Since it was a tax credit, it often required a tax equity investor, often a foreign company, to fund the project. The subsidy was there, but instead of being direct, it was convoluted and too complex to be as effective as China’s subsidies in building an industry.”

He added, “The stimulus money helped in some ways. The 1603 Treasure Program turned the tax credit into a cash grant for 30% of a renewable energy installation’s cost, helping attract more investors. But more direct funding blew up in the government’s face.  The Solyndra debacle showed that loan guarantees don’t guarantee success and that the government probably isn’t the best at picking industry winners.  The outrage after the company’s collapse could be heard around the country.”

This shows the contrast in the ways that China and the U.S. have subsidized their solar industries.  As a capitalistic economy, the U. S. doesn’t want direct government meddling in business.  On the other hand, China will subsidize businesses to create jobs and help them maintain their position as the world’s #1 exporter.

Filing a trade case is the last resort for an industry harmed by China’s “dumping,” government subsidies, and currency manipulation.  Other industries that have been forced to file similar cases are steel, semiconductors, textiles, furniture, and tires.  This latest case is part of a long trend of industries on the verge of being wiped out by China’s predatory mercantilism.  Our elected leaders seem to be afraid to do anything because it would start a trade war.  When are our leaders going to realize that we are already in a trade war, and China is winning?  If China can defeat us in an economic war and destroy the economy of the United States, they won’t have to fight us in a military war.  It’s time for our elected to have the courage to stand up to China and address China’s “dumping” and currency manipulation.  We Americans need to demand action!










Will President Obama’s Blueprint Save American Manufacturing?

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

In his State of the Union address, President Obama laid out a blueprint for an economy that’s built to last – an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values.

I share the President’s believe that “this is a make or break moment for the middle class and those trying to reach it.  Manufacturing is the foundation of the middle class, and we are losing the middle class because of the loss of manufacturing jobs.  I’ve seen the middle class eroding for decades because manufacturing and the good jobs the industry provides began leaving our shores long before the recession.  Too many manufacturers have sourced all of most of their manufacturing offshore, especially in China.  It’s the loss of manufacturing jobs that is keeping unemployment so high and creating budget deficits at the local, state and federal level.  People who are working pay taxes that generate revenue for our government whereas the unemployed create expenses to government for their “safety net.”

The President’s blueprint has one section covering manufacturing titled, “Manufacturing: Create New Jobs Here In America, Discourage Outsourcing, And Encourage Insourcing,” so let’s examine the points one by one to see if they will make enough difference to “save American manufacturing.”

1.        Remove tax deductions for shipping jobs oversees and providing new incentives for bringing them back home:  It’s been outrageous that we’ve been giving tax incentives to companies to outsource manufacturing offshore by allowing companies moving operations overseas to deduct their moving expenses and reduce their taxes in the United States.  This proposal would eliminate deductions for moving their operations offshore and give a 20 percent income tax credit for the expenses of moving operations back to the U. S. to create jobs for Americans.  Eliminating this tax incentive for outsourcing offshore is one of the recommendations mentioned in my book.

2.        Target the domestic production incentive on manufacturers who create jobs here at home and double the deduction for advanced manufacturing:  This proposal would reform the current deduction for domestic production by more narrowly focusing it on manufacturing activities, expanding the deduction for manufacturers, and doubling the deduction for advanced manufacturing technologies from its current level of 9 percent to 18 percent.  This proposal would benefit manufacturers utilizing advanced manufacturing technologies, but I see no reason why it shouldn’t apply to all domestic manufacturing and why oil production should be eliminated from this deduction.

3.       Introduce a new Manufacturing Communities Tax Credit to encourage investments in communities affected by job loss:  “The President is proposing a new credit for qualified investments that help finance projects in communities that have suffered a major job loss event … would provide $2 billion per year in incentives for three years.”  For example, if a major employer closes a plant or substantially reduces the workforce with a mass layoff, the tax credit would support qualified investments in the affected community that would improve local economic growth.   This proposal would help communities that lose manufacturing companies or suffer mass layoffs, but would have no effect in preventing manufacturers from leaving or closing plants.

4.       Provide temporary tax credits to drive nearly $20 billion in domestic clean energy manufacturing: The President is proposing to extend the Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit tax credit for investment in domestic clean energy manufacturing to ensure new windmills and solar panels will incorporate parts that are produced and assembled by American workers.  However, the U.S. solar industry filed a trade case at the Department of Commerce late last year alleging dumping and unlawful subsidies by China.  Until we address China’s currency manipulation and dumping of products including solar panels and windmill parts, America’s clean energy industry will remain at a competitive disadvantage to China.  Senate bill 1619 that passed the Senate last fall, and H. R. 639 waiting for a vote in the House would be a good start in addressing China’s currency manipulation.  Unfortunately, President Obama has indicated he would veto the bill if passed.

5.      Reauthorizing 100% expensing of investment in plants and equipment: The President is proposing to extend for all of 2012 a provision that allows businesses to expense the full cost of their investments in equipment, spurring investment in the United States.   This provision was part of the Bush administrations tax cuts and will sunset at the end of this year unless it is extended.  It needs to be extended well beyond the end of this year for it to have any real impact in benefitting manufacturers.

6.      Closing a loophole that allows companies to shift profits overseas: Corporations right now can abuse the tax system by inappropriately shifting profits overseas from intangible property created in the United States.  The President is proposing to close this loophole.  This is one of the several steps we need to take to incentivize companies to maintain manufacturing in the U. S. or bring manufacturing back from overseas.

At the same time the President is calling for immediate enactment of this plan, he is pushing forward on a framework for corporate tax reform that would encourage even greater investment in the United States, while eliminating tax advantages for outsourcing.  This framework would include:

Making companies pay a minimum tax for profits and jobs overseas and investing the savings in cutting taxes here at home, especially for manufacturing: The President is proposing to eliminate tax incentives to ship jobs offshore by ensuring that all American companies pay a minimum tax on their overseas profits, preventing other countries from attracting American business through unusually low tax rates.  The savings would be invested in cutting taxes here at home, especially for manufacturing.

This would only encourage more companies to reincorporate in tax haven countries to avoid paying any corporate taxes in the U. S., which has the second highest rates in the world.  A better plan would be to reduce corporate taxes down to the globally competitive 25 percent so that corporations will have less incentive to avoid paying U. S. taxes by building facilities in foreign countries.

Making permanent an expanded Research and Experimentation Tax Credit: The President is proposing to make the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit permanent, while enhancing and simplifying the credit.  Again, this is one of the recommendations in my book and would encourage manufacturers to keep R&D in the United States as only research and experimentation performed in the United States is eligible.
Simplify the tax code and close loopholes:  The Fact Sheet states that over the last 30 years since the last comprehensive reform, the tax system has been loaded up with special deductions, credits, and other tax expenditures that help well-connected special interests, but do little for our country’s economic growth.  The President’s framework will close these loopholes and simplify the tax code so businesses can focus on investing and creating jobs rather than filling out tax forms.  As I mentioned in a recent article, the Department of Treasury issued a report in 2007 that made many recommendations of how to simplify the tax code and close loopholes.  We don’t need to “reinvent the wheel” to study how to simplify the tax code.  Let’s just implement some of the previous recommendations immediately.

Cracking down on overseas tax avoidance and loopholes:  The Fact Sheet states that the President has taken strong steps to crack down on overseas tax evasion and loopholes, including signing into law the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which targets tax evasion by U.S. citizens holding investments in foreign accounts, as well as measures to crack down on abuse of foreign tax credits  that have allowed multinational companies to inappropriately reduce the amount of taxes they paid in the U. S.
The Fact Sheet touts the tax incentives that President Obama signed into law in the last three years that have helped manufacturers, but he actually only signed legislation extending the tax cuts and tax incentives through 2012 that were originally passed by Congress under the Bush administration.  These tax cuts and incentives will end in 2013, if not extended again, and far higher taxes will be imposed under certain provisions of the Affordable Health Care Reform Act of 2010.

One of the big reasons manufacturers and other types of businesses are sitting on millions of dollars in corporate profits without expanding plants, buying new equipment, and hiring more workers is the fear of the higher taxes and health care costs they are facing in 2013 as a result of the Health Care Reform Act.

Therefore, a careful review of the President’s blueprint shows that it doesn’t do enough to save American manufacturing.  The few beneficial policies will be more than undone by the tax increases and regulations that will take effect in 2013 and thereafter.  What we need is an all encompassing national manufacturing strategy if we truly want to provide enough incentives to retain or bring back manufacturing to the U. S. and discourage corporations from outsourcing their R&D and manufacturing overseas.