China trade duties“Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”  Spock, from the Wrath of Khan.

In most trade cases, a few domestic producers (or even one) ask the U.S. government to protect them by imposing extra duties or other trade barriers on imports. Usually, larger numbers of U.S. importers, downstream manufacturers or consumers wind up bearing these costs to protect the domestic producers, even though these costs are often arbitrary, excessive and unfair.

The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) just wrapped up its part in the latest trade case against imported solar cells and modules. Solar products from China were already hit with antidumping and countervailing (AD/CVD) duties in 2011 and 2014. This was not enough for the two largest remaining U.S. solar producers, Suniva, Inc. and SolarWorld Americas, Inc., who now have asked for a safeguard investigation to determine whether extra tariffs, quotas, and/or floor prices should be imposed on all imported solar cells and modules from any country. Opposing Suniva and SolarWorld is the rest of the $29 billion U.S. solar industry, mainly the U.S. solar energy developers, downstream U.S. solar panel installers and U.S. manufacturers of solar components, such as racking systems and inverters. On the one hand, Suniva and SolarWorld are hoping the safeguard relief measures will save hundreds of workers at their facilities. On the other hand, opponents argue these remedial measures would threaten many thousands of workers at other U.S. companies that have benefitted from the solar energy boom.

Though Suniva blames import competition for its bankrupt condition and its need for this safeguard action, the reality is that Suniva filed this case because it got whacked by the second solar trade case filed by SolarWorld. Previously, Suniva’s business model relied on producing solar cells in the United States that it then shipped to China where they were assembled into solar panels that were shipped back to Suniva’s U.S. customers.

The second solar trade case brought by SolarWorld in 2014, however, targeted any Chinese solar panels, regardless of where the solar cells were made. SolarWorld had complained that the first solar case in 2011 had an enormous loophole because it covered only Chinese solar panels made with Chinese solar cells. After that first case, Chinese module makers quickly switched to use cells from third-countries, mainly Taiwan, which caused SolarWorld to file its second case. Suniva in the second case claimed that any Chinese modules that used its American solar cells should be exempt from AD/CVD duties just because they were American, but the Department of Commerce (DOC) disagreed. The second round of solar duties disrupted Suniva’s supply chain and made using its Chinese module assemblers cost prohibitive. Suniva thus decided its last hope was to file a safeguard action that would artificially create a level playing field whereby all imported solar panels would be subject to the same high duties, quotas or floor prices.

The problem is how high do those trade barriers have to be for Suniva and SolarWorld to have any chance of surviving?

In this ITC safeguard investigation, Suniva and SolarWorld originally asked for extra tariffs to be imposed for four years, starting at 40 cents per watt on imported solar cells and a minimum price floor of 78 cents per watt for solar modules, as well as proposed import quotas to limit the total amount of imported cells (0.22 gigawatts) and modules (5.7 gigawatts). Solar industry analysts feared these measures would at least double the current cost of solar products, slash solar demand by two-thirds, and undermine billions of dollars of pending solar investment projects.

The ITC just released three different remedy packages that recommend far less than what Suniva and SolarWorld requested. The highest of the Commission proposals calls for extra tariffs of 30 to 35 percent on solar modules and cells that would then decrease certain percentage points each year for four years. Given the current forecasts that imported panels would cost around 32 cents per watt, analysts expect the highest Commission proposed remedies would add only an extra cost of 10 to 14 cents per watt.

Suniva and SolarWorld have expressed disappointment with the ITC recommendations and they have asked President Trump to impose stronger measures they claim are necessary to save the domestic U.S. solar manufacturing industry from extinction.

Unlike the more common AD/CVD cases in which the ITC and the DOC decide on whether to impose extra duties, in these rarely used safeguard investigations, the President has the ultimate authority to decide what, if any, remedial measures should be imposed. President Trump will have until January 12, 2018, to decide what remedial measures will be imposed that may affect $8.3 billion of imported solar cells and panels. He can follow any of the Commission’s recommendations or come up with his own remedial measures.

There have been few U.S. safeguard actions (and none since 2001). One reason why safeguard actions fell out of favor was because domestic industries found them less effective than the more commonly used AD/CVD actions. Because safeguard actions permit trade restrictions to be imposed on fairly traded imports, U.S. law specifically limits safeguard measures to a shorter period (usually four years or less) and to a maximum tariff rate of not more than 50% above existing rates.

Most importantly, the safeguard statute gives the President discretion to weigh the costs and benefits of imposing remedial measures. From 1975 to 2001, U.S. Presidents have declined to implement any trade restrictions in slightly more than half of the cases (19 of 40) in which they could have. In those cases where the President did impose trade barriers, they were usually much lighter than what the petitioning domestic industry sought. Past Presidents chose to impose no or much lighter safeguard remedies because they acknowledged the potentially harmful impact the proposed tariffs or quotas might have on downstream users and consumers, as well as the risk of other countries retaliating by imposing their own safeguard measures against U.S. exports to those countries.

But since President Trump has vowed to take strong action against imports, this solar safeguard action (along with another safeguard action on washing machines) is being watched closely as a test of whether President Trump’s actions will match his tough campaign rhetoric. If President Trump imposes remedial measures tougher than what the Commission recommends, we could see a flood of other safeguard petitions from other U.S. industries seeking a quick direct route to import relief from a sympathetic President.

In 2015-16, solar energy-related companies employed 374,000 people in the U.S., which is more than the combined number of workers in the coal, oil, and gas industries. Technological advances and competition have pushed solar installation costs down more the 60 percent since 2011 and solar electricity has in some places become cost competitive with electricity sourced from oil, coal, and gas. If President Trump imposes excessive safeguard remedies he could wipe out all progress solar energy has made in the United States. For the U.S. solar industry to live long and prosper President Trump will need to balance the needs of the many and not just consider the needs of the few.

Here is hoping the President makes a logical choice because a lot is going to be riding on it.