Navigant Research Blog

In Solar Trade War, China’s Not the Enemy

Dexter Gauntlett — April 9, 2012

The U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) recently announced the first of two expected import tariffs on Chinese crystalline solar cell and module manufacturers.  This is the latest blow in a feud that has included local content requirements, two-way accusations of strategic underpricing at different points in the value chain, and political posturing that amounts to a clean-tech trade skirmish.  SolarWorld America and other unnamed U.S.  manufacturers initiated the suit claiming a 49-249% “Alleged Dumping Margin” by leading Chinese solar manufacturers which have gobbled up market share at the peril of many U.S. companies.

Here are the main takeaways: This is mostly a symbolic victory in an election year.  The first announcement was a countervailing duty that ranges from 2.9% to 4.73%, with the verdict of the second anti-dumping case expected in May.  This first duty was significantly lower than the 30% figure that many in the industry were expecting.  Even if the anti-dumping duty brings the total duty up to 20%, don’t expect this to cause a resurgence in U.S.  solar manufacturing anytime soon.  Nor should this have a major impact on the cost of installing solar in the U.S. or elsewhere (unless opportunistic installers conspire to do so and use the duty as an excuse to pad their profit margin).  Chinese companies may just ramp up manufacturing in Taiwan and other countries where they have manufacturing capacity to get around the ruling.

The suit and the DOC ruling have caused an antagonistic rift within the US solar value chain.  On one side you have solar manufacturers, led by SolarWorld America and seven other smaller companies that manufacture solar cells and modules.  These companies, despite receiving many tax incentives from state and federal governments in the United States and elsewhere, have witnessed a margin bloodbath and are fighting for dear life.  On the other side, the drop in cost has led to a doubling of installations for the past two years, leading in turn to a boom for U.S. installers, third-party financiers (think SunRun, SolarCity, et. al), and project developers who have seen tremendous growth during this time.  None other than the pioneer of the solar lease, Jigar Shah, founder of SunEdison and leader of Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, has been the most visible advocate representing this group.

Meanwhile the polysilicon producers in the U.S. who fared well when prices were high in 2009 are now experiencing a race to the bottom on price.  Chinese polysilicon providers now allege that the American competition is selling at artificially low prices that is wiping out Chinese companies.  Go figure.

It’s true the Chinese government has provided an order of magnitude advantage to solar manufacturers in China, primarily through low-interest loans.  But that was a strategic decision by a country that has to figure out a way to raise standards of living for its 1.3 billion people – and is not concerned about ROI for Western investors, elections, and US jobs.  Plus, note that the leading U.S.  residential marketshare leader, SunPower, is not part of the suit.

For a number of reasons, China holds all the cards on this one – and that means the bottom line is that the country is going to play by its own rules. Western crystalline solar manufacturers’ “enemy” is state capitalism, not Chinese manufacturers, so companies (across all cleantech sectors) need to get used to it.  The United States lacks a coherent, let alone strategic, energy policy ‑ and this is one of the repercussions.

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