United States informs WTO of trade petition investigation (ITC notification embedded)

Well, that escalated quickly.

The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) has informed the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 163 members that it could levy “safeguard” tariffs on imported solar cells at the behest of module manufacturers Suniva and SolarWorld Americas, who say they have been irreparably harmed by unfair practices by their international competitors.

Suniva filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April. SolarWorld Americas’ parent company has filed for bankruptcy in Germany, and its U.S. subsidiary has filed the necessary paperwork to inform workers that it could shut down its manufacturing plant in Oregon within 30 to 60 days.

SolarWorld Americas has not filed for bankruptcy, however. They joined Suniva’s petition five days ago after initially criticizing the move.

The notification the ITC sent the WTO puts in writing the numbers that Suniva and SolarWorld Americas allege prove that international competition has led to carnage in the U.S. solar module manufacturing industry, to wit:

The petition alleges that, in absolute terms, the quantity and value of imports of [crystalline silicon PV] cells and modules have increased over the last five years. The quantity of imports rose from 111,053,315 units in 2012 to 168,330.149 units in 2016, an increase of 51.6%. The value of imports rose from $5.1 billion in 2012 to $8.3 billion in 2016, an increase of 62.8%. In addition, imports rose from 2015 to 2016, with the quantity of imports rising by 68% and the value of imports rising by 4%.

… according to the petition, capacity utilization for CSPV cell operations fell from 81.7% in 2014 to 28.9% in 2016. CSPV module production utilization fell from 66.7% in 2013 to 32.9% in 2016. Also, domestic production of CSPV cells fell 37.6% from 2015 to 2016, while domestic production of CSPV modules fell by 10.5%. Prices for CSPV cells and modules also declined from 2012-16 as imports increased.

The petition alleges that 1,200 manufacturing jobs in the United States have been lost and wages have fallen by 27% from 2012-16.

According to The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Survey, the solar industry now employs more than 260,000 people throughout the United States, of which 38,121 are involved in manufacturing.

The WTO notification comes exactly one week after the ITC agreed to conduct an investigation under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974. It will decide by Sept. 22 about whether to impose tariffs and provide an official report to President Donald J. Trump by Nov. 13.

The Suniva/SolarWorld complaint has not been without controversy in the United States, even before the WTO was involved. The original complaint earned the condemnation of the national association, installers and other solar stakeholders criticizing the move. One report even emerged arguing the complaint could slash the U.S. PV market 60% by 2021.

Read the ITC’s letter to the WTO.