President Donald Trump’s tariffs on imported solar panels mark the biggest blow he’s dealt to the renewable energy industry yet.
The U.S. will impose duties of as much as 30 percent on solar equipment made abroad, a move that threatens to handicap a $28 billion industry that relies on parts made abroad for 80 percent of its supply. Just the mere threat of tariffs has shaken solar developers in recent months, with some hoarding panels and others stalling projects in anticipation of higher costs. The Solar Energy Industries Association has projected tens of thousands of job losses in a sector that employed 260,000.
The tariffs are just the latest action Trump has taken that undermine the economics of renewable energy. The administration has already decided to pull the U.S. out of the international Paris climate agreement, rolled back Obama-era regulations on power plant-emissions and passed sweeping tax reforms that constrained financing for solar and wind. The import taxes, however, will prove to be the most targeted strike on the industry yet.
“Developers may have to walk away from their projects,” said Hugh Bromley, a New York-based analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “Some rooftop solar companies may have to pull out” of some states.
U.S. panel maker First Solar Inc. jumped 9 percent to $75.20 in after-hours trading in New York. The Tempe, Arizona-based manufacturer stands to gain as costs for competing, foreign panels rise. First Solar didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimated that the decision will eliminate about 23,000 U.S. jobs this year and delay or kill billions of dollars of solar investments.
Trump approved four years of tariffs that start at 30 percent in the first year and gradually drop to 15 percent. The first 2.5 gigawatts of imported solar cells are exempt for each year, the president said in an emailed statement.
The duties are lower than the 35 percent rate the U.S. International Trade Commission recommended in October after finding that imported panels were harming American manufacturers. The idea behind the tariffs is to raise the costs of cheap imports, particularly from Asia, and level the playing field for those who manufacture the parts domestically.
American solar installers including SunPower Corp., Vivint Solar Inc. and Sunrun Inc. jumped in after-hours trading. “A 30 percent tariff in Year One is bad,” said Gordon Johnson, a New York-based analyst at the Vertical Group, but “it’s less than what the consensus was.”
Jigar Shah, co-founder of investor Generate Capital Inc. and an outspoken advocate for the solar industry, went as far as to describe the decision as “good news.” The tariffs are “exactly what the solar industry asked for behind closed doors” to prevent a negative impact on companies, he said.
Sunrun said in a statement that, while the decision lifts “a cloud of uncertainty,” it still runs counter to “consumers, bipartisan elected officials, many military personnel, and the 99 percent of American solar workers whom this tariff will harm in the coming years.” The San Francisco-based company called for the administration to clarify which countries won’t be subject to the tariff. Trump didn’t identify exemptions in his statement.
Rooftop solar installer Sunnova Energy Corp. said the tariffs will not deter the industry. “The solar industry has been tested before and we have always shown our resiliency,” Sunnova Chief Executive Officer John Berger said in a statement. Regardless of the tariffs, solar installer Tesla Inc. said it’s “committed to expanding its domestic manufacturing,” citing the “gigafactory” it opened in Buffalo, New York.
The duties won’t be entirely devastating for the U.S. solar industry, Bromley said, estimating that they’ll increase costs for large solar farms by less than 10 percent. The costs of a residential system, he said, will rise by about 3 percent.
The decision will “destruct some demand for new projects in the next two years,” Bromley said. “But they will likely prove insufficient in magnitude and duration to attract many new factories.”
For Trump, they may represent a step toward making good on a campaign promise to get tough on the country that produces the most panels — China. Trump’s trade issues took a backseat in 2017 while the White House focused on tax reform, but it’s now coming back into the fore: The solar dispute is among several potential trade decisions that also involve washing machines, consumer electronics and steel.
Trump’s solar decision comes almost nine months after Suniva Inc., a bankrupt U.S. module manufacturer with a Chinese majority owner, sought import duties on solar cells and panels. It asserted that it had suffered “serious injury” from a flood of cheap panels produced in Asia. A month later, the U.S. unit of German manufacturer SolarWorld AG signed on as a co-petitioner, adding heft to Suniva’s cause.
Clark Packard, a trade policy expert at the R Street Institute in Washington, described Trump’s decision as “regrettable,” warning that more jobs will be jeopardized by the tariffs “than could possibly be saved by bailing out the bankrupt companies that petitioned for protection.”
An attorney for SolarWorld didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Suniva had sought import duties of 32 cents a watt for solar panels produced outside the U.S. and a floor price of 74 cents a watt.
While Trump has broad authority on the size, scope and duration of duties, the dispute may shift to a different venue. China and neighbors including South Korea may opt to challenge the decision at the World Trade Organization — which has rebuffed prior U.S.-imposed tariffs that appeared before it.
Lewis Leibowitz, a Washington-based trade lawyer, expects the matter will wind up with the WTO. “Nothing is very likely to stop the relief in its tracks,” he said before the decision. “It’s going to take a while.”
The solar industry may also attempt a long-shot appeal to Congress.
“Trump wants to show he’s tough on trade, so whatever duties or quotas he imposes will stick, whatever individual senators or congressmen might say,” Gary Hufbauer, a Washington-based senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said by email before the decision.
— With assistance by Jennifer A Dlouhy, Chris Martin, Joe Ryan, Derek Wallbank, and Sarah McGregor