China-owned U.S. solar maker seeks U.S. tariffs on China imports

Suniva Inc., a bankrupt U.S. solar manufacturer with a Chinese majority owner, is seeking protection from cheap imports from China.

Suniva is asking the U.S. to impose import duties on solar cells and panels, according to a complaint filed Wednesday with the U.S. International Trade Commission, asserting it has suffered “serious injury” from a flood of photovoltaic products from outside the U.S.

The filing comes about a week after the Norcross, Georgia-based company filed for bankruptcy protection, citing increased competition from panels produced abroad. With surging global production and falling prices, U.S. companies “simply cannot survive,” according to the complaint.

“Without today’s requested global safeguard, the U.S. solar manufacturing industry will die and we will not only lose solar manufacturing jobs today, but also those future jobs that will come from investing in the solar manufacturing industry of tomorrow,” Suniva’s Executive Vice President of Commercial Operations Matt Card said in a statement Wednesday.

Shunfeng International Clean Energy Ltd., a Chinese company that once had ambitions to become the world’s biggest solar supplier, acquired 63 percent of Suniva in 2015.

Shunfeng supports the trade case, and Suniva has worked with U.S. and global investors about devoting resources “to supporting American manufacturing,” Card said in an email.

Import Duties

Suniva is requesting import duties of 40 cents a watt for solar cells produced outside the U.S., and for a floor price of 78 cents a watt for panels. Global prices for panels have slumped 60 percent in the past five years, to 34 cents a watt.

Technically, the company is asking the ITC to determine that Suniva has suffered a serious injury, and to recommend that President Donald Trump impose duties for four years to “assist the domestic industry,” according to the filing. Under a trade rule called Section 201, the president can authorize a broad range of actions to address such issues.

This case is different from a trade decision in 2012, when the U.S. Commerce Department imposed tariffs of as much as 250 percent on Chinese-made solar cells after finding that Chinese manufacturers sold cells in the U.S. at prices below the cost of production.

In this case, the company is “looking for Trump to come in and support them,” said Gordon Johnson, an analyst with Axiom Capital Management in New York.

While Suniva said the U.S. solar manufacturing industry is facing a dire threat, Johnson countered that imposing duties that double panel prices would threaten clean-energy developers that purchase panels.

“I spoke with two U.S. developers and they laughed,” Johnson said in an interview. “They laughed because this would immediately kill thousands of jobs. Because we have a jobs president, there’s no way this happens. And they’re right.”

Suniva said it’s seeking to return solar prices to 2015 levels, “when there was healthier economics across the industry, both manufacturing and installation,” Card said.

Trade protection may not help Suniva in the long run, said Hugh Bromley, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“It is no surprise that Suniva, a manufacturer producing a costly technology-variant at low volumes on a figuratively ancient production line, cannot compete against modern facilities producing cheaper technologies at scale,” Bromley said in an email “Applying tariffs hinders the local industry much more than it helps it.”

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