"The solar industry calls upon the U.S. and Chinese governments to immediately work together towards a mutually satisfactory resolution of the growing trade conflict within the solar industry," SEIA President and CEO Rhone Resch said in May, noting, "Disputes within one segment of the industry affect the entire solar supply chain — and these broad implications must be recognized."
And there's the rub. While tariffs on Chinese solar imports might help some U.S. manufacturers, they could jeopardize other players in the industry, including solar installers, sellers, and distributors, as well as manufacturers that don't produce solar cells and modules.
The nonmanufacturing sectors represent the largest chunk of the solar industry, which in 2011 employed an estimated 100,237 workers in the United States, according to a job census from the independent Solar Foundation. More than three-quarters of those jobs were in installation, sales, distribution, and other fields; just under a quarter were in manufacturing. More than half of those jobs — 52,503 — were in installation alone.
Many solar installers, sellers, and distributors fear that placing duties on Chinese panels will raise prices and cripple U.S. demand over the long term, at the cost of jobs that depend on affordable solar prices. A study from the consulting firm Brattle Group in January estimated that a 50 percent tariff would result in anywhere from $621 million to $2.3 billion in net consumer losses and cost about 15,000 to 43,000 jobs over a three-year period.
"If they screw with the solar-cell costs basis, it could have negative repercussions down the chain," said Jigar Shah, president of the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, a group of solar companies that oppose the tariffs and commissioned the study. Low solar prices might negatively affect U.S. manufacturers, but they also bring down total system costs for installers, sellers, and distributors.
"They're not looking at the broader picture," Shah said of the Commerce Department and U.S. International Trade Commission investigations, which began last year and focus solely on the harm to American producers. Despite possible implications for consumers and others in the industry, "they're not allowed to" broaden that scope, he said.
Shah and other tariff opponents also see low prices as key to the growth of the solar industry. That is because the industry isn't just battling China; it also has to compete with fossil fuels and other traditional energy sources. The ultimate goal for the industry is to achieve "grid parity," or the point at which solar energy equals the cost of competing sources. It's the "holy grail," as lawyer Richard Weiner told the ITC at a hearing on Wednesday. As the price of natural gas has plummeted in the past several years, low solar-system costs have become even more critical.