Vermont solar industry concerned about tariff bid

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BENNINGTON — A proposed tariff on less-expensive solar panel components manufactured in other countries is seen as having a serious negative impact on Vermont's solar industry.

Solar facility installers here and around the nation say they are concerned about a proposed tariff aiming to protect solar component manufacturers in the U.S. from foreign competition.

Suniva, which has filed for bankruptcy, and SolarWorld have petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission to impose a tariff and a minimum price on imported solar cells to help them compete with manufacturers in China and other countries.

They are asking for a tariff of 40 cents per watt for solar cells produced outside the U.S. and for a price floor of 78 cents per watt.

"This is a big deal to us," said Chad Farrell, CEO of Encore Renewable Energy, which develops commercial solar arrays in Vermont.

The firm is a member of the Solar Energy Industries Association, which is objecting to the tariff proposal at the national level, he said.

Although no decision has been made on the tariff, Farrell and others in the industry already are seeing price increases, they said, in part because of uncertainty over the cost of panel components and because installers are ordering ahead as a hedge against higher costs in the future.

Austin Davis, a spokesman for Renewable Energy Vermont, a nonprofit trade organization representing renewable energy businesses, said the U. S. International Trade Commission has until Sept. 22 to determine whether competition from foreign manufacturers has harmed the manufacturers based here. If the determination is yes, the commission will have until Nov. 23 to recommend a remedy to President Donald Trump.

The president could accept the commission recommendation, reject it or decide on a different remedy.

"We've never seen the market respond this immediately and significantly," said James Moore, co-founder of SunCommon, in a release. "We're used to changes, but this is bigger. We are stockpiling solar panels. The more panels we can squeeze onto our shelves now, the longer we can hold our prices down for Vermonters going solar."

Moore said solar installers are buying up panels ahead of a possible tariff decision.

SunCommon estimated that the cost of an average home solar system in Vermont would rise by $2,000 to $3,000 under the proposal and commercial solar projects would see a 15 to 20 percent price increase.

SunCommon representatives plan to testify in Washington against the tariff.

In Vermont, Farrell said, a "robust industry" has developed, with electric utilities that "have embraced solar."

But he added, "I think that in the entire U.S., the solar industry has entered a period of uncertainty."

The cost of components has started to rise and the atmosphere has "slowed things down," he said, with companies sometimes hesitant to offer an installation price during a period of fluctuation.

Farrell said the situation could resolve itself quickly for installers if a tariff is rejected and over time if a smaller tariff is instituted instead.

He said the industry has faced similar swings in the past, adding, "They don't call it solarcoaster for nothing."

Davis echoed that assessment, saying that the cost of solar and other renewable energy had fallen considerably over the past five years prior to the tariff proposal. The trade association, which formed in its current format 18 years ago, "has weathered storms like this in the past," he said.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., was one of 53 members of the House to sign a letter this spring expressing concerns about the proposed tariff.

The letter stated in part: "We are concerned that the requested trade protection would sharply increase the price of solar panels, which could lead to a negative impact across the whole solar industry. The increased costs could slow or even stop solar growth, jeopardizing billions of dollars of investment in communities across the country."

Mary Sprayregen, director of Policy and Public Affairs at Vermont Energy Investment Corp., said in a statement Tuesday, "If Vermont is to achieve its goal of meeting 90 percent of Vermont's total energy needs from renewable sources by 2050, solar will have to be part of that picture. Thankfully, the global nature of today's solar market has advanced technology and driven down prices. If the United States imposes a 40 cent per watt tariff on imported solar cells and a 78 cents per watt floor price for imported solar modules, that will only make Vermont's renewable energy goal more difficult and expensive to achieve."

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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