The answer to this question depends on what role you play in America’s solar industry ? manufacturer, distributor, or retail installer ? and what China will do in retaliation.
In May 2012, ChinaGlobalTrade.com, a program of non-profit organization The Kearny Alliance, released a well-researched and well-documented report titled “China’s Solar Industry and the U. S. Anti-Dumping/Anti-Subsidy Trade Case. The purpose of the report is to “present a balanced, fact-based discussion of the trade case; an exploration of how China’s solar industry has grown so big so fast; and a thorough analysis of what might be the consequences – many of them likely unintended – of likely outcomes of this trade case” to encourage readers to look at the issue from new angles.
As background to the case, the report presents these facts about the global solar industry:
- On-grid installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems grew an average of 45 percent per year on average between 2003 and 2009, driven mainly by government policies in Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan, and the U.S. “These policies are designed, in one way or another, to subsidize the cost of solar power so that it is competitive with other on-grid electricity sources.”
- Global production of solar PV systems rose dramatically in the last decade – from 371 megawatts in 2001 to more than 24 gigawatts in 2010, an increase of 6,376 percent.
- The price of solar cells and modules started declining rapidly beginning in 2008 from about $3.30 per watt in 2008 to about $1.80 per watt at the beginning of 2011 and $1.00 per watt at the end of 2011. The price is projected to fall to $0.74 per watt by 2014.
During this time period, China’s growth in solar manufacturing was rapid. “In 2001 China produced 1 percent of the world’s solar cells and modules. By 2010 it produced nearly half. Today, four of the top 5 solar cell producers are Chinese; three of the five module producers are. Of the top fifteen solar cell manufacturers in 2010, six were Chinese companies. Two were American. Of the fifteen solar module manufacturers in 2010, eight were Chinese. One was American.”
Estimates of the cost advantage of Chinese cell and module manufacturers compared to their U.S. counterparts range from about 18 percent to 30 percent, but GTM Research analyst, Shyam Mehta, estimates the cost differential to be about 25 to 30 percent in 2012.
As a result of this loss in market share by American companies, in October 2011 an anti-dumping and anti-subsidy trade case was filed by SolarWorld Industries America, the U.S. division of German manufacturer SolarWorld AG, and six other U. S.-based solar manufacturers with the U. S. International Trade Commission and Department of Commerce to seek relief for U. S. producers injured by Chinese imports of crystalline silicon photovoltaic (CSPV) products.
The report says “the stakes are high. For one thing, countervailing (anti-subsidy) duties, if high enough, could dramatically affect the solar industry in the U.S. and around the world, as could anti-dumping tariffs. There are potentially severe unintended consequences of any policy action in this case – or inaction, for that matter.”
On March 20, 2012, U.S. Department of Commerce announced its preliminary determination in the countervailing duty (anti-subsidy) investigation. Chinese companies received preliminary countervailing duties ranging from a high of 4.73 percent for Trina Solar down to 2.90 percent for Suntech Power, with all other Chinese producers at 3.61 percent.
The report states that “Chinese reaction to the preliminary countervailing duties was relatively mild. Two Chinese trade groups asked the China Ministry of Commerce (MOC) to start an investigation against U.S. into dumping and illegal subsidies. However, the Chinese reaction to the May 17th preliminary anti-dumping determination, in which the Department of Commerce found that Chinese manufacturers dumped solar cells on the U. S. market and assessed tariffs of about 31 percent, was very different.
The report states that the reactions to this case could have significant ramifications for the global solar industry and presents several potential reactions by China.
- China could remove its subsidies and stop dumping – the precedent for this is that when the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) launched an investigation into export restraints, subsidies, and discrimination against foreign companies for imported goods by China in green technologies in October 2010, the pressure from the petition led China to remove local content requirements for wind technology.
- Chinese manufacturers could retaliate in a number of ways against the imposed tariff, which is “why only three of the seven companies behind the petition have named themselves publicly (and two of those only after the preliminary countervailing duties were announced).”
- Chinese manufacturers could ramp up their own production of polysilicon (which they have already begun doing) and turn to Germany and Switzerland to fill the equipment gap – effectively cutting out the U.S. firms that are still competitive in the solar supply chain.
- Chinese firms could move cell manufacturing to Taiwan, which the authors of the report feel “could be their best solution because it would allow Chinese manufacturers to keep their upstream supply chains intact…Then, they could assemble the modules anywhere in the world ? in Taiwan, in China, in Mexico, or in the end-use country.”
According to Melanie Hart, Policy Analyst for Chinese Energy and Climate Policy at the Center for American Progress, “Retaliation can also spread beyond the actual petitioners to harm the U.S. economy more broadly.” China could block market access for U.S.-based firms in other cleantech industries.
Tom Zarrella, a former chief executive of GT Solar, a New Hampshire supplier of solar manufacturing equipment, said, “It would be a travesty for the solar industry.” The U.S. is still an important supplier of polysilicon, as well as CSPV manufacturing equipment.
In addition, Chinese solar manufacturers could ramp up production in the U.S. similar to how trade cases against Japanese automakers in the 1970s and 1980s pushed Japanese companies into building factories in the U.S. “Chinese solar manufacturer Canadian Solar already said that would be one possible response to countervailing duties and anti-dumping duties in this case too.”
However, this would not be a way for Chinese manufacturers to circumvent tariffs because the trade case applies to Chinese-made cells as well as modules comprised of Chinese-made cells, no matter where those modules are assembled. To avoid the tariffs, Chinese manufacturers would have to locate not just module assembly plants but cell production facilities in the United States as well.
The trade case “will only accelerate the setting up of solar module and solar cell manu-facturing in the United States,” said the president of Grape Solar, a company based in Eugene, Ore., that is a big importer of solar panels from China, Korea and Taiwan, as quoted in the New York Times. Grape Solar has already been in discussions with big Chinese panel makers on ways to move more manufacturing to the United States.”
The report states that around 100,000 Americans are employed in the solar industry in the U.S with about 24,000 manufacturing, including manufacturers of equipment and polysilicon producers. About 50 percent work in installation, construction, and engineering; another 18 percent in sales and distribution. Of the 24,000 people who work in solar manufacturing in the U.S., just about 5,000 manufacture cells or modules that compete with those made in China (and are the subject of the trade case).
Adam Hersh, Economist at the Center for American Progress, argued that if Chinese producers have an unfair advantage, it will undermine the world’s transition to renewable energy as a source of power. “If the producers are being given unfair advantages in China it’s going to undermine innovation in the sector of renewable energy infrastructure and will set back the pace of our transition to using sources of renewable energy. That’s why it’s so important to have a level playing field in this…There are some who argue that we should let in these subsidized, dumped products from China because it makes it cheaper to install and build out renewable energy here in the U.S. But that is a very shortsighted view of the dynamics of the industry. We need to have the innovation competition which will allow us to scale up and produce the most efficient and next generation of solar and other renewable energy sources going forward.”
The main petitioner in the trade case is SolarWorld Industries America, the U. S. division of a German company. SolarWorld operates factories in the United States and Germany and has been the largest U.S. solar panel manufacturer for more than 35 years. SolarWorld is the only vertically integrated company left in the U. S., meaning that it combines all stages of the photovoltaic value chain, from the raw material silicon to turn-key solar power plants. SolarWorld has its U.S. headquarters in Hillsboro, Ore. and a second plant located in Camarillo, Calif.
The other top American company is First Solar that “manufactures thin-film cells and modules (not crystalline silicon photovoltaics) and held the top spot among solar cell and module manufacturers in 2009. It is still the world’s largest producer of thin-film solar modules, accounting for more than 40 percent of world output. First Solar is headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, but the “lion’s share” (68 percent in 2010) of its output is produced in Malaysia.”
The main target of the anti-subsidy and anti-dumping trade case is Chinese company, Suntech Power, which was the world’s biggest producer of solar cells and solar modules in 2010. The company was founded in 2001 by Dr. Shi Zhengrong, who had been a research director of Pacific Solar Pty., Ltd., an Australian PV company. Suntech built its first manufacturing plant in the U.S. in Goodyear, Arizona in 2010, making it the first Chinese cleantech company to set up a manufacturing facility in the U.S. The 50 MW module assembly plant enables Suntech to label solar modules assembled there as “made in U.S.A.” As a result, Suntech now qualifies for federal “Buy American” subsidies.
Andrew Beebe, Chief Commercial Officer at Suntech, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal stating, “the fact that 95 percent of U.S. solar-related jobs are outside of cell or module manufacturing, is the reason why “many large and small U.S. solar industry leaders – including AES Solar, Dow Corning, Grape Solar, GroSolar, GT Advanced Technologies, MEMC/SunEdison, REC Silicon, Rosendin Electric, SolarCity, Swinerton and Verengo Solar – have banded together in the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy to oppose tariffs and defend free trade. They not only represent American consumers; they represent thousands of American manufacturing jobs and 95% of all American solar-industry jobs.”
The Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE) states that punitive tariffs against Chinese cell imports could affect solar PV sellers, distributors, and installers and the 76,000 Americans they employ in a number of ways. The imposition of tariffs could cause costs to increase and cause demand for solar products to decline, which would result in an associated reduction in American jobs in areas like installation, construction, engineering, sales, and distribution.
This report makes clear that “China’s solar cell and module manufacturers are highly competitive for many more reasons than having received subsidies on the order of 3-5 percent. Chinese manufacturers will still have the scale, the vertical integration, the discounted materials and equipment, and the low labor costs that allow them to sell cells for significantly less than their American competitors…And they will still have the significant support of the Chinese government’s industrial policy.”
The report then considers actions the U.S. or U.S. manufacturers could take that would help improve their competitiveness in the global solar industry. According to Shyam Mehta, Senior Analyst at GTM Research, Western and Japanese crystalline silicon manufacturers will never beat China at the CSPV game because China has such lower costs. He said that the future lies in either differentiated technology or a new business model. They must either:
- Commercialize a revolutionary technology at high scale that lowers the PV cost curve. China has had no success developing non-crystalline silicon PV technology. Elsewhere, there is only one notable semi-success, and that is First Solar thin-film technology; or
- Find a different business model. For example, First Solar and SunPower build and operate solar farms, and have done so successfully in the U.S. The advantage of building and operating solar power plants is that then the company has a dedicated sales channel that insulates its profit margins against China’s low-cost panels.
Others suggest that the U.S. develop an industrial policy and develop U.S. incentives to level the playing field. At present, the scale of Chinese incentives dwarf U.S. efforts. Access to capital is a critical compliment to the United States’ capacity to innovate.” To that end, the SEMI PV Group recommends:
- Large, long-term, stable, market-side support policies, including a national Renewable Clean Energy Standard (RES), state Renewable Portfolio Standards, buyer incentive programs, and sales and property tax credits;
- Maintain the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) through 2016;
- Extend the Section 1603 Treasury Grant Program that has provided a grant in lieu of the advanced energy investment tax credit (ITC);
- Increase Department of Energy funding for both R&D and manufacturing infrastructure development of the U.S. solar industry;
- Establish the R&D tax credit on a long-term basis to assure solar manufacturers greater consistency in tax and investment planning;
- Revive the Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit (MTC), and creation of a federal Green Bank to supplement PV and other green energy projects, particularly for manufacturing; and
- Work with foreign counterparts and the WTO to develop a strong, effective and enforceable rules-based international trading system that promotes free and open trade.
“We need to make sure we are investing in the foundations of innovation here in the United States to give our companies the policy environment they need to remain competitive against a rising China…we have to make sure that we do not cede critical American jobs to the Chinese – in solar manufacturing as in other U.S. industries – just because we were lax on the policy side,” argues Melanie Hart, Policy Analyst for Chinese Energy and Climate Policy at the Center for American Progress.
Speaking at the Conference on the Renaissance of American Manufacturing, Gordon Brinser, President of SolarWorld Industries America, said that the U.S. must respond more quickly when there is evidence that China is violating international or domestic trade laws. Brinser recommended some specific policy improvements:
- The administration’s new trade unit should closely monitor import data for early signs of market distortions spurred by foreign governments;
- Our trade agencies must look hard at ways to preserve an open, transparent process for trade cases but in fewer steps and less time;
- They also must, in conjunction with U.S. Customs, aggressively find ways to anticipate and stop circumvention of trade remedies and theft of intellectual property;
- The government should bring legitimate cases for industries that are too small or injured to afford them; and
- The government must shed light on foreign companies that raise capital on U.S. exchanges and then withhold audit information from securities regulators.
I believe implementing these recommendations would benefit American manufacturers in all industries. The solar industry has not been the only target of Chinese “dumping.” We must enforce international and domestic trade laws to protect our entire manufacturing industry if we ever want to revive our economy and create more American jobs.