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Unusual Ruling Could Impact Cheap Solar Panel Imports

In a decision that could potentially have a profound impact on U.S. trade policy, the U.S. International Trade Commission has ruled that a flood of cheap, foreign solar panels is unfairly hurting U.S. manufacturers, creating the opportunity for President Donald Trump to follow through on his protectionist campaign rhetoric and impose tariffs and import quotas as soon as November.

If Trump imposes the tariffs, what would be his second significant protectionist act targeting China since approving an investigation into the country's controversial IP policies that some view as tantamount to starting a trade war. Tariffs would upend the $29 billion U.S. solar industry, according to Bloomberg. More expensive prices for cells and panels would hurt demand for solar potentially reversing a trend of growing demand that has persisted for much of the past decade. Even before the Friday vote, some developers had halted construction and begun hoarding supplies, anticipating that tariffs could double the price of imported components.

The ITC is now set to deliver its recommendations to address the import surge to the president by Nov. 13, handing him an opportunity to score political points on three priorities: He can slap a tariff on China and argue he’s protecting U.S. jobs, all while undermining an industry that competes with coal, an energy that Trump cultivated close ties with during the campaign. The ITC's vote gives Trump a measure of cover to impose the sanctions.

The case was inspired by Georgia-based Suniva Inc., which filed for bankruptcy protection in April and followed up days later with the trade suit. The company is seeking import duties of 40 cents a watt for solar cells, and a floor price of 78 cents a watt for panels, which currently average about 32 cents worldwide. The U.S. unit of German panel manufacturer SolarWorld AG joined Suniva to argue that the company had been driven to bankruptcy by a global glut of cheap cells, an industry dominated by China. Unlike earlier trade cases, this one would apply on U.S. imports from any nation.

Related: Expect A Major Leap In U.S. Oil Exports

Shares of First Solar popped because it’s panel technology would be excluded while shares of other solar companies tumbled. 

(Click to enlarge)

Shares of Tesla, which bought Solar City last summer, remain at the lows of the day.

(Click to enlarge)

Most of the US solar industry, which uses the cheap panels for rooftop or utility-scale projects, oppose tariffs, arguing that inexpensive imports have driven a boom in U.S. solar projects and tens of thousands of jobs hang in the balance. Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, called it an “ill-conceived case” driven by creditors wanting to recover some of their investments “in poorly run companies.”

“The petitioners made bad business decisions during the biggest boom in American solar energy history,” Ross Hopper said before the vote. “These companies are not worthy of an injury finding.”

The ruling is unusual because it relies on a rarely used provision of a trade law that offers companies a “global safeguard” that can result in broad, uniform protection against imports - not just tariffs on specific countries or companies. Under that 1974 trade measure, Suniva only had to prove that imports have caused it “serious injury” — not that foreign competitors did anything unfair or illegal. Also, Suniva's majority owner, Shunfeng International Clean Energy Ltd., opposes the move. The ITC is also pursuing a separate global safeguard investigation of large residential washers as manufacturers, encouraged by Trump's rhetoric, have filed more cases, believing the administration would follow up on a favorable ruling with sanctions.

Of course, tariffs would also complicate Trump's relationship with China at a time when the administration is pressuring China to do more about North Korea.

Related: Failed Oil Price Recovery Slams Energy Stocks

Read the ITC's full statement below:

The U.S. International Trade Commission has determined that Crystalline Silicon Photovoltaic Cells (Whether or Not Partially or Fully Assembled Into Other Products) are being imported into the United States in such increased quantities as to be a substantial cause of serious injury, or threat of serious injury, to the domestic industry producing an article like or directly competitive with the imported article in the United States.

As a result, the investigation will move to a remedy phase.

More information will be provided in a news release to be issued later today.  That news release will replace this bulletin when it is available.

By Zerohedge

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