All aboard the ‘solar coaster’

Companies feeling effects of new tariff

For solar energy companies, the tariff signed by President Trump on Jan. 22 is another bump on what Brad Van Wert calls “the solar coaster.” Co-owner of Harvest Solar in Bozeman, Van Wert said the industry faced a stream of setbacks from state and federal government, but that challenges only made the industry stronger.

The tariff puts a 30 percent tax on imported solar panels as recommended by the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) following an investigation of the global market last fall. The tariff is scheduled to decrease to 15 percent in 2022.   

President Trump heralded tariffs (one was also placed on washing machines) as an important step toward reviving U.S. manufacturers who were “badly hurt from harmful import surges.” His statement was based on the ITC report, which found foreign exporters, especially China, had benefitted from unfair trade practices. The Chinese government relied on a mixture of subsidies and state financing to keep the price of its solar panels “artificially low,” the reported stated. 

It’s not the first time the U.S. has taken action on behalf of  its solar manufacturers. It placed duties on imported panels in 2012, but China managed to evade them by shifting its production to other countries, primarily Malaysia. Between 2012 to 2016, imports swelled by 500 percent, and by 2017, domestic manufacturing had “almost disappeared.”

Nonetheless, the executive action sparked criticism from solar industry spokesmen, who complained that raising import prices would dampen the consumer market and hurt businesses that make up the bulk of the U.S. industry, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Of the 260,000 people who work in the solar sector, only 2,000 actually manufacture panels. The SEIA estimates that most of the 23,000 jobs lost as a result of the tariff will come from installation companies and those that produce materials and accessories. Montana has both. 

Harvest Solar does small-scale installation projects for homes and businesses in central Montana. Van Wert is not exactly celebrating the new tariff, but he said the industry’s outcry is probably excessive. Although the cost of solar panels may rise as much as 30 percent, he expects much of the increase will be absorbed by the supply chain – the installers, distributers and possibly the manufacturers – not passed along to the consumer.  

For more of this story, pick up a copy of this week’s Big Timber Pioneer on newsstands now, or subscribe online at bigtimberpioneer.net.

By CHRIS AIKEN / Pioneer reporter

 

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