Trade Wars: Solar Division
Will sector momentum be broken?
The solar industry, at its recent gathering, wanted to talk about 100,000 jobs, the quest for grid parity and inroads made with the utility industry. What it didn’t really want at its annual convention was to be taken off message by a looming trade war.
But a coalition of U.S. manufacturers wanted to get the industry’s attention with a trade petition that was filed with a division of the Commerce Department. SolarWorld AG’s U.S. unit filed a complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission in Washington.
One point on which both sides can agree, but for different reasons: It couldn’t come at a worse time.
The solar industry is making strides in the national energy conversation, jobs, particularly on the installation part of the business are growing, and costs are coming down.
Solar is trying to shed the image of a subsidy-dependent industry in the post-Solyndra bankruptcy era, when renewable energy critics are latching onto any bid of bad news to denigrate clean energy.
But the complaint was perhaps staged a bit to take advantage of the high –profile the solar conference afforded to those who are claiming to expose the dark underbelly of solar’s growth. In effect, one of the trade complainants told me the momentum of the past year was unsustainable because part of the lower prices that solar PV was enjoying was gained by unfair trade practices, not just efficiencies.
“In 2010 the industry saw lower price s due to true efficiencies and economies of scale,”
Kevin Kilkelly, president of SolarWorld said at the Solar Power International conference last week.
But in his view nothing that was occurring in the industry this year, like the decreasing embedded costs for manufacturing equipment, for instance, could justify what was going on in the marketplace.
“In the U.S. Customs statistics, we saw a 350 percent increase in the importation of modules. At the end of July there were more modules in that month than in all of 2010,” he said.
Some American manufacturers are pitted on one side against not only Chinese companies, but also project developers and some advocates who see the complaint as a self-inflicted wound.
Sometimes, those opposed to the complaint wear both hats, as does Arno Harris, CEO of Recurrent Energy, a California-based developer of utility scale photovoltaic (PVV) projects.
“This is the wrong reaction to have as the industry starts to drive its costs down to become more competitive,” he told me at the conference.
And, he said that companies that are unable to compete are initiating a trade case to obscure their shortcomings.
“Some of the best evidence we haves is that many of these Chinese companies are traded on western stock markets and they’re not making much money in these times, either,” he added.
As these things tend to take time, the slow dance of a trade case will play out over several months.
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