Two coalitions of solar companies have differing views on China imports

SolarWorld is hitting back at critics who say the company is threatening the entire solar power industry by filing unjustified trade complaints against China.

"Many of our critics placed their bets on illegally dumped Chinese products and now they are afraid of paying the price," says Ben Santarris, head of corporate communications and sustainability for SolarWorld America, which operates a large manufacturing plant in Hillsboro.

Santarris was responding to comments made last Wednesday at the final International Trade Commission hearing on SolarWorld’s complaint that China is trying to monopolize the solar industry in violation of international trade agreements. This week the U.S. Commerce Department is expected to finalize its preliminary duties and tariffs against the Chinese products. The ITC is expected to enact them next month.

At the ITC hearing, SolarWorld officials said they could be forced to lay off Hillsboro workers unless something is done to stem the flow of subsidized Chinese products into the U.S. They were joined by other manufacturers who said China was intentionally driving them out of business.

"Five years ago, we saw the industry really taking off in the United States, and we carefully planned how we would be a responsible leader in this growing market," Gordon Brinser, SolarWorld America's president of manufacturing, told the ITC. "We made enormous investments in our facilities and devoted substantial resources to technological development. However, far from benefitting from the growth in U.S. demand, SolarWorld has been severely harmed by unfairly traded Chinese imports."

But representatives of other solar companies also testified that SolarWorld’s problems were caused by its own bad business decisions. They said the company needed to cut the cost of its products to become competitive, not file complaints against China — complaints that risk starting an international trade war that could raise the cost of solar power.

Some of these critics amplified on their comments the next day during a telephone briefing for reporters. Taking the lead was Kevin Lapidus, senior vice president of legal and government affair for SunEdison, a subsidiary of the MEMC Electronc Materials, Inc., a solar manufacturing and installation company. He accused Solar World, a German company, of abusing U.S. laws to compensate for its own inability to compete.

"SolarWorld’s goal is to raise the cost of U.S. solar energy," said Lapidus.

Santarris defends his company’s products and business practices, however. He notes that the commerce department and ITC have repeatedly sided with SolarWorld after conducting their own independent investigations of Chinese trade practices.

Two solar coalitions battle

The dispute encompasses some of the most high-profile political issues of the day. Solar power is seen by many as a way to increase America’s energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The solar industry has also been touted as an important element of the new "green economy" that could aid the recovery of the U.S. economy. Advanced manufacturing jobs like those at SolarWorld’s Hillsboro plant pay above-average wages. But more solar power workers in this country are employed as installers and those workers have been helped by the availability of cheaper Chinese products.

SolarWorld filed petitions with the ITC and commerce department on Oct. 19, 2011. They charged that the Chinese government has violated international trade policies by heavily subsidizing its country's solar power manufacturers, allowing them to produce excess products that have been illegally sold below cost in the U.S. for the purpose of dominating the marketplace.

Both sides in the dispute have supporters. SolarWorld is leading the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, which claims to represent about 225 companies employing more than 18,000 workers at all levels of the solar industry. In addition to SolarWorld, those testifying in support of the complaint at the ITC hearing included other manufacturers, an installation company and an electrical supply firm.

During their testimony, members of the coalition said that at least 14 U.S. manufacturers have closed or downsized their operations in recent years, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs in Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. The most recent shutdowns, they said, include plants in New Mexico and Tennessee.

SolarWorld's coalition is also backed by four U.S. Senators and 18 members of the U.S. House, including every Democratic member of the Oregon Congressional delegation.

SunEdison and MECM belong to The Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, which represents over 150 solar energy companies, including manufacturers, retailers, installers and engineers. During the telephone briefing, Lapidus said his coalition speaks for the vast majority of those employed in the U.S. solar industry, not SolarWorld and the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing.

According to Lapidus, the top priority for his coalition is increasing the availability of solar power. He said that is best achieved by lowering costs until they reach parity with power generated by other sources, including coal. Lapidus argued that the cost of solar power has been coming down for a variety of reasons, but that it will increase if SolarWorld wins its trade complaint.

Preliminary ruling favors SolarWorld

After investigating the complaint, the commerce department announced preliminary anti-subsidy duties of up to 4.73 percent on Chinese solar cells and panels in March of this year, and preliminary anti-dumping duties on Chinese solar cell and panel imports ranging from 31 percent to 249.96 percent in May. They will be finalized this week and will take effect if the ITC upholds them next month.

In a preliminary vote, the ITC ruled 6 to 0 in support of SolarWorld’s complaint. That is why most observers by the tariffs and duties will soon be applied against the Chinese made products.

Lapidus and others in CASM insist SolarWorld has not proven its case, however. They say the preliminary ITC and commerce department determinations are flawed because they are not based on detailed studies of actual Chinese transactions. Instead, because the U.S. government does not consider China to be a market economy, they are based on a model derived from Taiwan.

"There’s not a rational explanation for what’s happening," Lapidus told reporters.

Santarris disagrees. He notes that Shi Zhengrong, the chief executive and founder of China’s biggest solar panel manufacturer, Suntech Power Holdings, admitted his company was selling solar panels on the American market for less than the cost of the materials, assembly and shipping in comments made to the New York Times in August 2009.

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