Low-Cost Chinese Solar Panels Spark Boom in Clean Energy, and an International Trade Dispute | WYPR

Low-Cost Chinese Solar Panels Spark Boom in Clean Energy, and an International Trade Dispute

Aug 2, 2017

Solar panels on the Gilman School in Baltimore
Credit Solar Gaines

The solar energy industry has been growing rapidly in Maryland and across the U.S. over the last eight years. One of many signs of that explosion can be seen here at the Gilman School in Baltimore, where a local company called Solar Gaines last year installed 288 black glistening solar panels on the rooftops.

Hans Wittich, president of Solar Gaines, said the installation not only saves the private school money on its electric bills, but also provides an educational example for the students about how pollution-free energy can be practical and affordable.

“It’s visible. It looks great. And it generates, I believe, 20 to 30 percent of their electricity needs,” Wittich said.

Wittich’s company, which is based just north of the city in Cockeysville, started with just two employees in 2009 and now has 35. Its business and revenues doubled almost every year until last year -- as the firm installed solar panels on 800 homes and businesses.

“Solar really has transformed from an environmentalist movement to almost a commodity business,” Wittich said. “So the economics of it have played a big part in how it has grown.  And the cost of the installations has dropped significantly.  So the math got much better.”  

What made the math better?  Well, Chinese companies started mass producing solar panels, which drove down their price by more than half – which was great for solar installers, like Wittich.  But the Chinese imports – including these on top of the Gilman school - - also drove American-based solar panel manufacturers out of business.

Two of these manufacturers have filed a complaint of unfair competition with the Chinese with the International Trade Commission in a case that is scheduled to be heard on August 15.  The companies are Suniva, headquartered in Georgia but owned in part by Chinese investors, and Solar World, based in Oregon but owned by a German parent company.

If Trade Commission decides against the Chinese-based panel manufacturers, and President Trump makes good on his campaign promises to push back against global trade – he could potentially impose tariffs on the import of solar panels that could almost double the cost of solar panel systems.

The Solar Energy Industries Association warns that raising the prices of imported solar panels could mean the loss of 88,000 jobs like Hans Wittich’s out of the 260,000 American jobs in solar today.    

To put those numbers in perspective, although President Trump likes to talk about saving jobs in the coal industry, only about 76,000 Americans still work in the coal mining today – fewer people than who work for Arby’s or Whole Foods, according to U.S. Census figures.

That means that imposing a tariff to try to save American solar panel manufacturers ...could potentially wipe out the equivalent of more than every single job that still remains in American coal mining.

John Rogers, senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said there is a real risk that the rooftop solar installation renaissance that is flourishing in the U.S. today could be snuffed out by protectionist trade policies and higher prices.

“Half the projects that are scheduled to happen between now and 2022 may not happen because of the extra costs,” Rogers said. “So you’ve got a lot of projects, you’ve got a lot of momentum, you’ve got a lot of people in the industry who are pushing, pushing, pushing to keep solar happening.  And then you could have this come along and really hurt that progress.”

An irony is this:  While globalization is often thought of as bad for the environment and American jobs, in this particular case, the opposite might be true.