Free-trade deals may soften tariffs on solar panels


NEW YORK US free-trade deals with Canada and other countries may soften the impact of tariffs on imported solar panels now that Suniva Inc has convinced the government it was hobbled by foreign competition.

The US International Trade Commission voted 4-0 last Friday in favour of a complaint filed by the bankrupt solar manufacturer, which is seeking duties that would double the price of panels. The commission is recommending that President Donald Trump exclude from the tariffs Canada, Singapore and several other US free-trade partners, which combined supply about 5% of solar panel imports.

The commission, however, voted to recommend that tariffs or quotas be applied to the two biggest solar panel manufactures among US free-trade partners: South Korea and Mexico, which combined supplied 28% of panels imported into the US last year, according to the commission.

The majority of imported panels come from Malaysia, Vietnam and other Asian nations not covered by free-trade deals. And the final decision to impose tariffs rests squarely with Trump, who has no obligation to exempt any nations.

“The president has made no secret of his eagerness to use the tariff weapons he has at his disposal,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Suniva, based in Norcross, Georgia, filed its complaint with the commission in April, saying tariffs are the only way US manufacturers can compete with cheap imports from Asia. The company invoked an obscure law that grants the White House power to impose duties if the commission determines surging imports are hurting American companies. SolarWorld

AG’s US unit joined the case in May. Much of the industry opposes the effort, arguing that without low-cost imported panels, installations would plummet. Rooftop installers and solar-farm developers, which employ 85% of the industry’s 260,000 workers, have been especially vocal, saying higher-priced panels would lead to widespread job losses.

Suniva and SolarWorld call those claims overstated. Timothy Brightbill, a Washington trade lawyer who represents SolarWorld in the case, said no nations should be excluded from tariffs. Otherwise, he said, Chinese solar companies would simply set up factories in Mexico or elsewhere to keep

flooding the US with low-cost panels. After a trade complaint by SolarWorld led to tariffs on imported panels from China in 2012, companies including JinkoSolar Holding Co and Trina Solar Ltd opened factories in Malaysia, Vietnam and other nations to avoid paying duties. — Bloomberg