MISERY LOVES (renewable) COMPANY
By Caroline Lavenue
Energy production and, in turn, energy consumption grows year-after-year. In 2012, total U.S. energy production was 79 quadrillion Btu, and in 2016, total U.S. energy production grew to 97.5 quadrillion Btu—a 23.4% increase in only 4 years (compared to a national population growth of 2.89%)! Daniel Wood, US Energy Production Through The Years, October 13, 2017; U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Energy Facts Explained, October 13, 2017. World Bank, United States Census Bureau, October 14, 2017. As energy production has increased in the United States, renewable energy has always been one-step behind. U.S. Energy Information Administration, Frequently Asked Questions, October 13, 2017. Since first developed in 1954, the modern photovoltaic (solar) technology never gained the traction that many predicted. U.S. Department of Energy, The History of Solar, October 13, 2017. Blame it on concerns with industry stability, unwillingness to embrace change, or pricing; as a former employee in the solar industry, I heard the same excuses every time from potential customers: “It’s too expensive, and what will happen to my panels when your company goes out of business?”
Finally, in 2016, what we had been awaiting for years finally happened—prices became competitive, and the solar industry experienced an outpouring of growth. Solar Energy Industries Association, Solar Market Insight Report 2016 Q4, October 13, 2017. Thanks to importation ease, customer trust, and economy of scale, the US solar market was competitive at last; rejoice!
A sense of loss was brewing in some, however, and on April, 17, 2017, Suniva, the self-proclaimed leading American solar manufacturer, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Joseph Bebon, Solar Manufacturer Suniva Files For Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, October 13, 2017. One week later, Suniva (sore loser #1), filed a Section 201 petition under the 1974 Trade Act with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) calling for new tariffs on international imports of solar cells and modules. Stephen Lacey, A Guide to the Latest Solar Trade Dispute: How Suniva’s Petition Could Impact the US Solar Industry, October 9, 2017.
After a 201 petition is filed, the U.S. ITC has 120 days to review the claim, and determine whether the industry has, indeed, suffered injury. If injury is found by the ITC, the burden shifts back to the company to strategize remedies. The remedial plan is then presented to the ITC by the company after a public hearing, and, finally, the plan’s viability is in the hands of the President for final approval. Stephen Lacey, A Guide to the Latest Solar Trade Dispute: How Suniva’s Petition Could Impact the US Solar Industry, October 9, 2017.
On May 5, in the wake of the trade claim filing, SolarWorld (sore loser #2), a previously fierce opponent of Suniva, became a co-petitioner in the claim. Joseph Bebon, SolarWorld Americas Joins Suniva Trade Case, October 13, 2017. The former rivals claimed the same injury – if not for foreign, cost-effective imports, their businesses would be successful (although, many wonder what these companies were doing wrong—while they were failing, the industry was thriving).
In another bizarre twist of events, in mid-summer, it was discovered that Suniva and SolarWorld had another thing in common besides attitude; both companies were found to be majority-owned by international parent companies. George Felcyn, What the Suniva/SolarWorld Trade Case Could Mean for Downstream Solar Companies, October 14, 2017. Are the very imports they are fighting managing to find their ways into the supply chains of both companies?
On September 22, 2017, the ITC determined that imported solar cells and modules have “caused injury,” varying in severity depending on the import country. Lacey Johnson, Julia Pyper, Solar Tariff Case Advances as ITC Finds ‘Injury’, October 7, 2017. Remedy proposals were then submitted to the ITC from SolarWorld and Suniva, calling for a four-year tariff schedule ranging from $.25 per watt in year one to $.235 per watt in year four.
On October 3, 2017, a public hearing was held, SolarWorld and Suniva versus everyone else. SolarWorld Americas CEO, Juergen Stein, proudly proclaimed that “these tariffs would return U.S. prices to levels in late 2015 . . . just before the most recent price crush.” Lacey Johnson, Commissioners Hear Final Trade-Case Arguments Before They Send Advice to Trump, October 8, 2017. Note that in 2015, the U.S. installed 7,493 megawatts; in 2016, the U.S. nearly doubled its annual record, and installed 14,626 megawatts of solar PV. Mike Munsell, US Solar Market Grows 95% in 2016, Smashes Records, October 9, 2017. Considering these numbers in light of the complaints bears the question: what’s the motive here? Do SolarWorld and Suniva want the industry to grow, or will their preferred masochism win?
Finally, on October 11, 2017, First Solar, the largest U.S.-based solar panel manufacturer, finally broke its silence, and supported the ITC trade claim. Julia Pyper, First Solar Comes Out in Favor of a Section 201 Trade Case Remedy, October 14, 2017. Lending more credence to the claim, the decision now goes to the ever-capricious President to decide the fate of the solar industry. The President is not one to support international imports typically, however, he seems to have a fetish-like obsession with coal. Stay tuned—will the destiny of the solar industry go to capitalistic freedom, deranged fiscal prescription, or the deep-seated monetary lusters who secretly control us all—fossil fuel companies (mother frac’cers!)?