Suniva trade case would lead to 88,000 US solar job losses: SEIA

The protections against solar imports requested by bankrupt US manufacturer Suniva would devastate the booming American solar industry, leading to an estimated 88,000 job losses next year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

SEIA’s grim job-losses estimate is equivalent to roughly one-third of the existing US solar workforce, among the country’s fastest growing area of employment in recent years.

Just days after filing for bankruptcy earlier this year, Georgia-based Suniva, a relatively small maker of PV cells and modules, invoked a rarely-used law to request that the US take emergency action against solar imports.

Late last month the US International Trade Commission formally initiated the case, and by September it will determine whether to side with Suniva – with President Donald Trump ultimately deciding whether to take action. The White House’s decision would come sometime around the beginning of 2018.

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The case is different than previous ones brought against Chinese and Taiwanese solar manufacturers in the US, in that it would cover all imports of crystalline-silicon cells and modules, no matter where they were made – including those made in places like Mexico and the Philippines by US-based companies like SunPower.

The case will be closely watched by the US energy industry given solar’s rapidly growing position in the power market. Last year solar was for the first time the largest source of new US power-generation capacity, topping gas and wind.

While most analysts still think the case has a slim chance of success, the unpredictable nature of President Trump gives the proceeding an unusual twist. Trump has for years railed against China’s aggressive promotion of its manufacturing sector, and his advisors could also come to view the case as a backdoor means of supporting non-renewable energy sources like coal.

The potential impact of the trade case on other energy sources, including wind, remains unclear, although some states could be forced to learn more heavily on wind to meet their renewables targets in the event solar becomes less competitive.

The US wind market has also worried about trade policy under President Trump, although a typical US wind farm has a higher level of domestic content than a typical solar plant, offering the wind industry a bit more of a buffer.

Suniva has asked for a minimum import price floor of $0.40/W for cells and $0.78/W for modules. Analysts at Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg New Energy Finance say a price floor at that level would lead to a doubling of the final cost of modules in the US market – knocking solar backwards by at least several years on its cost-reduction curve. The US solar market relies heavily on cells and modules made overseas.

A price floor at the level requested by Suniva would mean 15,800 near-term job losses in California alone, with the utility-scale solar market to be especially hard hit, estimates Washington DC-based SEIA, the chief lobbying group for the US solar industry.

“Our estimates show that even in the states where Suniva and its lone supporter, SolarWorld, have operations, if the petition succeeds, there would be many times more jobs lost than expected gains for the two struggling companies,” says SEIA chief executive Abigail Ross Hopper.