MONTPELIER — Vermont based solar installers are worried about the impacts on the domestic solar industry as two U.S.- based solar panel manufacturers seek trade protections from the federal government.
Manufacturers Suniva and SolarWorld, headquartered in Georgia and Oregon, respectively, began making their case last week to the U.S. International Trade Commission to impose a tariff and minimum price on imported solar cells, which are turned into solar panels to help power homes and businesses.
The companies argue the tariffs would help them compete with foreign companies.
Suniva filed for bankruptcy and shut down earlier this year, citing competition from cheaper, imported solar cells arriving mostly from China. Its request to the commission is to impose a tariff of 40 cents per watt for solar cells produced outside the U.S. and a minimum price of 78 cents per watt for panels.
The ITC will determine by Sept. 22 if the Suniva and SolarWorld have suffered injury from the lowcost imported solar cells. If the commission finds the two companies have been harmed, it will pass on its recommendation for a remedy to President Donald Trump by Nov. 23. The president will then have 60 days to determine if he will slap a tariff or minimum price on imported cells.
Many companies in Vermont and across the country say a tariff’s impact on pricing in the U.S. could cause harm to the market for solar panels. As the price of solar panels rises, fewer families and businesses are likely to install solar systems, which would hurt the more than 80 solar companies operating in Vermont.
Olivia Campbell Anderson, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, a nonprofit trade organization that promotes renewable energy and conservation efforts, said the case filed by Suniva and SolarWorld is already having an impact in Vermont.
“Our members are seeing solar panel prices increasing for fall orders and being told by manufacturers that panels may not even be timely available this winter. Several local businesses are holding off on hiring additional employees due to negative impacts of the trade case,” she said.
Chad Farrell, president of Encore Renewable Energy, a solar firm that focuses on larger scale commercial and industrial solar arrays, said the trade case has halted — temporarily, at least — new hires.
“It has had an effect on our business. It’s caused us to hold back on at least one and perhaps two new hires that we’ve been looking to make until we have some resolution as to where this case is going to go,” he said.
“The proposal is to essentially double the price of solar panels,” he added. “It’s having an impact on our development pipeline. It’s having an impact on some of the larger utilityscale projects that we’re pursuing.”
He said the tariff may benefit a handful of manufacturers in the U.S., but will cause economic harm to the industry overall and the ancillary businesses that purchase and install solar panels.
“A lot of that business is obviously concerned with the outcome of this petition,” Farrell said.
According to data compiled by REV, there are more than 9,000 solar power systems installed in Vermont that provide enough electricity for more than 29,000 homes. Solar power provides about 5 percent of the state’s total electricity needs.
Residential systems account for more than 91 percent of the solar power generated, while busi- nesses produce more than 7 percent of the solar power generated in the Vermont, according to Renewable Energy Vermont.
Anderson said people interested in installing solar panels, either at homes or businesses, are likely to see a significant cost increase later this year.
“If customers wait until later this year or next year, solar for their homes or businesses will most likely be more expen- sive. REV members work hard to deliver quality craftsmanship at affordable prices and are doing all that they can to ensure that every Vermonter has access to clean energy,” Anderson said. “However, decisions from Washington, D.C., threaten to take away new customers cost savings.”
James Moore, co-founder of one of the state’s largest solar installers, Suncommon, said the cost of solar installations will soar if a tariff is enacted.
“In the solar industry we’re used to change, but this proposed solar tax looms large,” he said. “If the current proposal is enacted, the price of a solar system for the average Vermont home will jump $2,000 to $3,000. And the cost of a larger, commercial array would climb 15 to 20 percent.”
Moore said representatives from Suncommon plan to testify in Washington against the tariff.
The issue has caught the eye of Congress. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., joined 52 other members of the House earlier this month in signing a letter asking the commission to consider the negative impacts a tariff would have on the solar industry.
“As part of ITC’s investigation, we urge you to carefully consider the negative impacts the proposed trade remedies would have on the entire American solar industry,” they wrote.