Solar panel manufacturer Suniva, who recently filed for bankruptcy, has made a request for “global safeguard relief” from imports of crystalline silicon solar PV cells and modules. Suniva has requested that President Trump impose a four-year minimum import price on PV modules and cells, starting in year one at US$0.78 per watt for modules and $0.40 for cells.

This will more than double the price of the lower priced solar panels – and increase solar system pricing up to 40% for large-scale utility projects, 30% for commercial projects, and 20% for homeowners. This pricing for solar panels was last seen in the United States in 2014-2015. Suniva has lost more than $500M since 2015.

Recent opinions published by researchers is that we ought to thank the Chinese for this global gift of cheap solar panels – and focus on taking advantage of installations and R&D:

Researchers from Stanford’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance encourage the United States to reconsider a wide variety of its solar energy policies in order to maximize the industry’s long-term benefits to the global climate and to the U.S. economy.

The U.S. government should embrace a globalizing solar industry, continue to invest in the deployment – as well as research and development – of solar energy, and, above all, prioritize plans that reduce the cost of solar power, the researchers said.

The researchers argue that solar R&D has a greater long-term economic value to the U.S. than solar manufacturing.

NREL has stated multiple times that labor costs are not the reason Chinese solar panels are lower – ‘the major differentiators are scale and supply-chain advantages. Regional incentives including provincial subsidies, tax holidays, and low-cost debt may be key enablers for rapid scaling, but they affect MSP less directly.”

Ironically, a Chinese billionaire owns Suniva.  Shunfeng International Clean Energy Ltd., the Hong Kong-based solar company controlled by billionaire Zheng Jianming, agreed to acquire a majority share of U.S. solar manufacturer Suniva for $57.8 million in 2015.

Jade Jones, a senior solar analyst with GTM Research, explained the impact on module pricing: “That would bring us to module price levels seen in the last oversupply cycle. So similar to prices in 2012. That would also make the U.S. the highest priced market in the world, with module prices more than double other regions.”

We need understand that in China this investment in solar power is a national security action. If we decide to attack them with solar panels again – China will respond like they did last time. Ask US silicon manufacturers how they feel about the Chinese market and its duty rates of 53.6% to 57%

The defense that panel manufacturers – mainly SolarWorld before Suniva joined – will use to pull on our heartstrings, and probably the Trump administration’s as well, will be ‘manufacturing jobs.’ Though the number of jobs at stake in solar manufacturing is not a compelling reason to upend a $20-30B industry.

A quote released by the Solar Energy Institute of America (SEIA) referenced the jobs lost at Suniva – putting those smaller numbers in perspective:

“While we have not had a chance to fully review Suniva’s petition to the International Trade Commission, we strongly urge the federal government to find a resolution that bolsters the competitiveness of American solar cell and panel manufacturing, which employs approximately 2,000 people in the U.S., without erecting new trade barriers,” reads a statement from SEIA CEO Abigail Hopper

Recently, Tesla’s Gigafactory in Buffalo revised commitment to solar manufacturing jobs at the $750M facility. Tesla initially said they’d need 1,460 employees to run the factory. Instead – due to advances in automation they’ll employ 500 people on the factory floor and “more hires can be directed toward research and development, as well as sales, installation, facilities, and management positions.” TSEC recently announced a fully automated PV module factory in Taiwan to combat higher domestic pricing and long wait times for product from the Chinese mainland.

These numbers and factories show us that we ought not to be tying our job gains to solar panel manufacturing. Machines do that work. Let us remember that last year, in the USA, 1 out of 50 new jobs nationwide was in the solar industry for a total of greater than 51,000 new solar employees – most of them in sales and installations.

If pricing for solar panels is going up – you better buy now.

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