The Gunther Report

It's Time to Pick Sides in the US-China Solar Trade Wars

Should we worry about Chinese government subsidies to its solar industry? Or send the Chinese a thank-you note?

A group of seven U.S.-based manufacturers of solar panels is alarmed. These manufacturers, led by Solar World, a German firm with a plant in Oregon, filed a complaint with the United States International Trade Commission, which reached a preliminary conclusion in December that U.S. companies were, in fact, being harmed by subsidized imports.

If the Commerce Department goes on to find that Chinese firms have been dumping solar panels on the U.S. market at prices below their costs, it could impose steep tariffs of 50 to 250 percent on Chinese panels, according to this report in The Times by Matt Wald. The Chinese government provides billions of dollars of low-cost financing and free or cheap land to Chinese solar firms.

But much of the solar industry -- led by Jigar Shah, the founder of Solar Edison, entrepreneur and environmental advocate -- thinks this complaint is a terrible idea. Tariffs would raise the costs of solar power to U.S. business and consumers, at a time when those are coming down; they could also set off a solar trade war that would harm other U.S. solar companies.

As it happens, the U.S. had a trade surplus of nearly $1.9 billion in the solar sector with China in 2010, as exports of raw material and factory equipment more than offset imports of finished solar panels, according to the Solar Electric Industries Association,. What's more, Jigar says, most of the 100,000 or so jobs in the U.S. solar industry -- he says as much as 97-98 percent -- are downstream of the manufacturing business in project development, logistics, construction and installation.

"SolarWorld's petition will do far more damage than good to the U.S. solar industry as a whole," Jigar wrote in this letter to Gordon Brinser of Solar World. "Every morning, thousands of hard-working Americans put on their tool belts and go build solar power plants. Our country needs more of those jobs, not fewer."

What got me thinking about this brouhaha was an email the other day from a California company called Solar Power Inc., or SPI, that underscored for me just how committed the Chinese are to getting their solar panels onto rooftops in the U.S.. SPI said it had secured construction financing worth $44 million from the state-owned China Development Bank to fund construction of solar projects in New Jersey.

Why would a Chinese bank finance solar panels in the U.S.? Well, it turns out that SPI is 70 percent-owned by LDK Solar, a Chinese company founded in 2005 that now says it "the world's largest producer of solar wafers in terms of capacity and a leading high-purity polysilicon and solar module manufacturer."

LDK bought its controlling interest in SPI Solar last year in an effort to gain direct access to the U.S. commercial market. With revenues expected to top $90 million last year, SPI is small to mid-sized developer of rooftop PV -- it installed panels atop the Staples Center and the Fox Studios in Los Angeles and a Costco in New Jersey. "We're a downstream market for LDK," said Mike Anderson, vice president of communications for SPI Solar.

Now consider those solar panels on their way to rooftops in New Jersey -- the Chinese manufacturer, LDK, gets low-cost land and financing from the Chinese government, SPI borrows from the state-owned China development bank to construct the solar arrays, the U.S. government grants the panels a 30 percent investment tax credit and New Jersey's renewable portfolio standard makes the project that much more attractive to the state's utilities. No wonder the solar market is growing!

Supporters of the petition filed by SolarWorld, which employs more than 1,000 workers in Oregon and is the only company named in the trade complaint, argue that too much of the solar PV market is going to China. Chinese manufacturers now enjoy better than 50 percent of the global market for modules, up from single digit percentages in the late 1990s. Cheap Chinese solar helped drive U.S. firms like the now-infamous Solyndra and Evergreen Solar into bankruptcy.

In a blogpost titled Educating Jigar Shah on Solar Trade, Hari Chandra Polavarapu, a solar analyst at a small firm called Auriga U.S.A, declares: "The lower prices of solar cells and modules from China have so far served as a battering ram in destroying overseas solar PV manufacturing competition."

"It's true that lower prices benefit all rate payers — but if that is all there is to an economic argument, then the U.S. and the rest of the world should give up all manufacturing to China and services to India," Polarapu writes.

My reactions:

1. Trade wars are risky. If the U.S. imposes tariffs on Chinese solar panels, the Chinese will retaliate. They have already promised to investigate U.S. subsidies.

2. Speaking of which, it takes chutzpah (that's a technical term in economics) for U.S. solar manufacturers to complain about subsidies in China since they, too, benefit from government-backed loans (yes, that means Solyndra), buy-American provisions in the stimulus package and favorable state tax treatment. SolarWorld got $40 million in tax credits from Oregon, where it employs about 1,000 people. Today's Times has an excellent story about how the government pays for worker training programs for individual companies. Until the U.S. brings a halt to crony capitalism (which would be good), U.S. companies are in no position to whine when they find it elsewhere.

3. Maintaining solar panel manufacturing jobs in the U.S. may be a lost cause. Solar cells and modules are not high tech products. They're more like a flat-screen TV or an iPod than a Boeing jetliner. Chinese PV manufacturers benefit from low labor costs and efficient operations, as well as subsidies, according to an article in the MIT Technology Review.

4. The Chinese subsidies create a positive externality -- lower carbon emissions, to the degree that solar panels replace dirtier fossil fuels. So long as they continue, we all benefit. If and when they stop, there'll be no reason why other manufacturers can't gear up to compete.

I'm not ready to send a thank-you note to China. But I'm thinking about it.

[Disclosure: I was paid last year to moderate an event for the Carbon War Room, which Jigar leads.]

Solar array photo via Shutterstock.