November 2, 2018 / 12:44 PM / 15 days ago

Trump's latest tariffs undercut his first trade salvo in solar

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In January, President Donald Trump fired the opening shot of his trade war, slapping tariffs on solar panel imports to boost U.S. manufacturing of a product long dominated by cheap foreign competition.

FILE PHOTO: Solar panels sit on the roof of SunPower Corporation in Richmond, California, U.S., March 18, 2010. REUTERS/Kim White/File Photo

But other duties his administration has imposed since then are making the solar panel components more expensive - dampening the domestic panel manufacturing sector’s initial hopes for expansion.

The conflicting impacts of his tariffs illustrate the pitfalls the administration faces in using broad protections for economic development - because tariffs meant to help one industry often undermine those shielding another.

Other examples include a levy on imported washing machines to help domestic manufacturers such as Whirlpool, the effect of which has since been undercut by separate tariffs on the imported steel and aluminium used to make them.

For the solar industry, the impact of Trump’s tariffs for companies and jobs gets even more complex.

The United States currently accounts for just a fraction of the fast-growing global panel manufacturing industry, a key reason why Trump moved to protect the U.S. sector.

While the January tariff on panels initially boosted the U.S. manufacturing outlook, it dented the prospects for the panel installation business by making panels more expensive for consumers.

Now solar manufacturers - including four that said they would expand U.S. production after Trump’s January announcement - are also taking a hit, this time from newer tariffs covering a range of Chinese-made components used in panel production.

Two companies with U.S. operations - China’s Jinko Solar and Silicon Valley startup Solaria - told Reuters they have scaled back initial growth plans as a result. 

“The impacts are generally very, very negative,” Suvi Sharma, the chief executive of Solaria, told Reuters.

Jinko slashed a planned $410 million investment at a manufacturing facility in Florida to just $50 million, costing the city of Jacksonville some 600 prospective jobs, according to public disclosures filed by the city council. Solaria abandoned its hopes of boosting production this year at its plant in Fremont, California and adding 20 jobs.

Finished solar panels require scores of components, ranging from aluminium framing to transformers, solar glass and power inverters. Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium early this year, and many of the other materials used in panels now also face duties as part of Trump’s 10 percent levy on about $200 billion worth of Chinese goods that went into effect in September. The tax on those imports will rise to 25 percent on Jan. 1.

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said the solar tariffs were designed with other duties in mind and that domestic solar panel manufacturers should consider buying their components from places other than China.

That could be difficult because China is the top source of cheap components. But some panel manufacturers say they are already sourcing panel components from countries other than China, including Korea’s LG, which is starting panel production in Alabama next year, and Canada’s Heliene, which started production in Minnesota in October.

Some component-makers are also shifting production out of China to serve U.S. manufacturers. Enphase Energy, for example, said it will start making microinverters for the U.S. market in Mexico. Its rival, SolarEdge, has said it would move some production to Romania and Hungary.

The $17 billion U.S. solar industry employs more than 250,000 people, most of them in installation and development and only about a fifth in manufacturing, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The Commerce Department’s senior renewable energy specialist, Cora Dickson, acknowledged at a September solar industry trade show that the tariffs impacting components pose a challenge for domestic panel manufacturers, but added they will be lifted once the U.S. and China come to better terms on trade.

“It’s not designed to cut off trade from China forever,” she said at the Solar Power International conference in Anaheim, California.

PULLING BACK ON INVESTMENTS

Solaria’s Sharma estimated that U.S. tariffs this year have increased the company’s U.S. production costs by about 30 percent – an amount equal to the original U.S. solar panel import duty.

That means that, instead of ramping up its Fremont, California factory to its full 40 MW of capacity as Solaria had planned this year, it has kept production constant at an unspecified level.

Jinko has seen its growth plans constrained by Trump administration tariffs on steel for factory construction, Chinese-made manufacturing equipment, said U.S. General Manager Nigel Cockroft. Certain parts for panel assembly are also “limiting factors,” he said.

The public documents filed by Jacksonville’s city council in January and March show Jinko’s original $410 million investment plan for the Jacksonville facility would have produced some 800 jobs. The $50 million plan that replaced it will create 200.

Jinko declined to elaborate on the documents.

Sunpower - a major U.S.-based solar company that bought a manufacturing plant in Oregon after Trump’s initial panel import tariff - is another company feeling the pinch.

“We are certainly concerned,” Suzanne Leta, the head of global market strategy at SunPower, said at the Solar Power International conference.

The new tariffs are discouraging the kind of manufacturing expansion the original tariffs on imported panels were meant to encourage, she said. Leta did not say specifically how the component tariffs might affect SunPower’s domestic output, and the company declined further comment.

Other solar panel producers with U.S. operations contacted by Reuters - including Korea’s LG, and Canada’s Heliene - said they expected the impact of the new rounds of tariffs to be limited because of their particular supply chain dynamics. Another Canadian firm, Silfab Solar, expects “slightly elevated costs” at the U.S. factory in Bellingham, Washington it took over from Itek Energy LLC in October, according to spokesman Geoff Atkins.

For First Solar Inc, which mostly manufactures panels in Asia but is expanding a factory in Ohio, tariffs pose a “headwind” for U.S. operations, Chief Executive Mark Widmar said on a conference call with analysts, citing higher costs for steel parts and aluminium frames.

COMPLAINTS FROM TESLA

Solar and electric vehicle maker Tesla Inc complained about the tariffs in a September letter to the U.S. Trade Representative, saying they “will hinder American innovation, expansion of companies, and the creation of more American jobs.”

The company declined to comment on the specific impact of the tariffs on its U.S. operations, including its solar manufacturing plant in Buffalo, New York, where it is already facing technical challenges to increasing output.

The Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), the solar industry’s primary trade group, said it had opposed the initial solar panel tariff in January to begin with because it expected the benefit for domestic manufacturing would fail to compensate for damage to the solar installation industry.

Now, the impact of additional tariffs on components used in manufacturing are “slowing down something we had pretty low expectations for to begin with.”

Reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Brian Thevenot

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