Point-Counterpoint: US solar sector squabbles over China

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The drastically opposing views in the U.S. solar sector on the matter of Chinese photovoltaic imports remain a touchy subject and one that continues to divide the industry.

A letter by SolarWorld founder and CEO Frank Asbeck to U.S. President Barack Obama warning of the imminent collapse of the country’s solar business and a sharply worded retort by Jigar Shah, president of the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE), is the latest case in point that clearly typifies the rift.

Acknowledging Obama’s comments championing America’s solar industry during his recent State of the Union Address, Asbeck touted his faith in U.S. solar technology manufacturing and pointed out that his company had invested more than $600 million in the U.S.

However, the SolarWorld chief executive sounded a dire warning about the industry’s vision of solar manufacturing in the U.S: "Today … that vision stands in grave danger. I must tell you respectfully, President Obama, that illegal trade practices threaten to destroy any ongoing U.S. role in global solar-industry competition. China is improperly seizing control of an industry that the United States invented, pioneered and grew."

Instead of joining the growing solar industry, the Chinese government has sought to exploit and dominate the sector, Asbeck argued. "Through state planning, billions of dollars of government subsidies and below-cost pricing, China built massive solar production capacity – enough to supply the world twice over – and drove down pricing to unsustainable levels. It harvested U.S. taxpayer-funded incentives, while keeping foreign competitors out of its own market."

Shah, as expected, was having none of it. "The chairman of German solar manufacturer SolarWorld Frank Asbeck penned a bizarre and frankly reckless letter to President Barack Obama this week, warning that the U.S. solar industry is in danger because of international trade. CASE agrees that the industry is under threat, but it’s entirely at the hands of Mr. Asbeck and his Germany-based company.

"In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama championed American solar jobs ‘which can’t be outsourced’ because they are installation jobs which take place on America’s rooftops," Shah continued.

"U.S. solar jobs grew at six times the national employment rate in 2013 because global solar manufacturing, like the manufacture of so many of our consumer electronic goods, has made solar power affordable and attractive to American middle class homeowners. The solar industry contributed nearly 20,000 new jobs to the American workforce in 2013; of these only 100 were in manufacturing.

In refuting Asbeck’s position, Shah sounded a warning of his own: "Like the last effort from SolarWorld in 2012, there is no credible case that tariffs will lead to increased U.S. solar panel manufacturing or employment. It’s critical to job growth in our country that we recognize where U.S. solar jobs are coming from, and what drives their growth. SolarWorld’s reckless trade petition would destroy the demand for affordable solar which is creating tens of thousands of jobs per year. It is irresponsible and frankly contrary to American interests for a German company to suggest otherwise in a letter to the president of the United States."

For its part, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has said — in response to the U.S. trade petitions SolarWorld filed late last year against chrystalline silicon products from China and Taiwan — that it opposes the escalation of the U.S.-China solar trade conflict.