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Chinese Solar-Panel Makers Look to Counter US tariffs

Posted: Dec 07, 2012

Bracing for planned tariffs on their products, Chinese makers of solar-power have cut back production at home and in the United States.

The moves are in response to the Nov 8 ruling by the Commerce Department's International Trade Commission that US solar-panel makers have been hurt by Chinese competitors that, according to Washington, engaged in illegal dumping and received illegal government subsidies.

The ruling, which clears the way for implementing tariffs of as much as 36 percent, capped an ITC investigation that was prompted by an October 2011 complaint from the US unit of Germany's SolarWorld AG. Other US-based solar companies have supported SolarWorld's case.

On Tuesday, the ITC issued a report that said undervalued imports of Chinese panels have caused US competitors to lose market share and prevented the domestic industry from covering production costs.

Suntech Power Holdings Co, the world's biggest maker of solar panels, announced last month that it was halving production at its manufacturing plant in Arizona - to 15 megawatts' worth of solar-panel production a year from a planned 30 MW. (The plant reached 45 MW in annual output within a year of opening in October 2010, however.)

The company has also shrunk manufacturing capacity at its home base in Wuxi, in eastern China's Jiangsu province.

"Trade tariffs restrict free competition and breed inefficiency within the global solar industry," said Walker Frost, a Suntech spokesman in the US. "This makes it harder for businesses to plan their operations and for the solar industry to maintain steady growth.

"We need a global free-trade agreement in clean tech to unwind these trade barriers and encourage the most efficient global solar industry possible. Low-cost solar is a really good thing for the world," he said.

Trina Solar Ltd, founded in 1997 and a leading panel maker, was one of two mandatory respondents to the ITC's tariff case (Suntech being the other). The Changzhou-based company was hit with an import tariff of 23.75 percent - at the low end of the US regulator's range. Smaller Chinese panel makers, or those that didn't respond to the case, face duties of up to 250 percent on their exports.

The tariffs have led the company to reassess production needs and make adjustments, said John Gann, financial director at its US division, Trina Solar Americas, in San Jose, California.

"As a global enterprise, we strive to conform to international and local trade practices in all markets," he said.

"Obviously, we were very disappointed by the International Trade Commission's vote to impose protectionist trade measures, which we believe may slow solar-related investments in the United States. We prepared for this outcome, and the tariffs will not affect the offering of Trina Solar product lines that are not subject to these tariffs," Gann said, reiterating much of what Trina Chairman and CEO Jifan Gao had stated at the time the ruling was announced.

The case, however, "may delay affordable market access to our most efficient cell technology-based products", said Mark Mendenhall, Trina Solar Americas' president.

Chinese solar-panel makers' friction with US industry counterparts and Washington regulators precedes the ITC ruling.

On Oct 11, more than a year after it filed for federal bankruptcy protection, California-based Solyndra LLC sued Suntech, Trina and Yingli Green Energy Holding Co, over their alleged collusion in pricing. Solyndra, which made thin-film solar cells used in panels, claimed in its antitrust lawsuit that the Chinese firms forced down prices by 75 percent, making it impossible to fulfill contracts signed in 2008. The suit seeks $1.5 billion in compensation and triple damages.

All three companies have shares that trade on the New York Stock Exchange, and Solyndra claims they used that access to raise capital to help drive out US competition.

"The allegations are baseless," Suntech's Frost said. "The lawsuit is a misguided effort by Solyndra to find scapegoats for its failure to commercialize its technology at a competitive price point. Solyndra's competitive advantage was to solve the problem of expensive silicon; when silicon prices crashed, Solyndra's technology became obsolete."

Mendenhall, of Trina, said, "Solyndra is positioning a story that ascribes blame to others as opposed to taking responsibility for its own poor business decisions and consequent market failures."

Both Suntech and Trina expressed determination to "vigorously" defend themselves against the lawsuit.

Before its September 2011 bankruptcy filing, Solyndra provided fuel for partisan critics of President Barack Obama. His administration guaranteed $535 million in loans so that the company could deal with excess manufacturing capacity in the solar industry.

A trade war wouldn't hurt only the US and China, but also the global market for solar panels and the electricity-producing crystalline silicon photovoltaic, or PV, cells that go into them. That's the view of Robert Wu, chairman of the US-China Green Energy Council, a San Francisco trade group that promotes cross-border ties in the industry.

"It isn't fair to blame Chinese companies for selling cheaper products," he said. "On the contrary, consumers in the US have largely benefited from the drastic drop in prices."

According to Frost, the US market for solar-power equipment is projected to continue growing fast. Still, Suntech was finding it difficult to manufacture efficiently in the US given the price depression caused by oversupply. The company produces about 50,000 panels a year at its plant in Goodyear, Arizona, for customers interested in domestically made gear.

Regardless of the tariffs, Suntech will rely on its broad supply chain and manufacturing sites in China, Japan and the US to provide customers with high-quality, affordable panels, Frost said.

"We expect continued growth particularly in large-scale commercial installations, as solar becomes competitive in more states across the country. We anticipate the US and China, the world's two largest energy consumers, will also become the world's two largest solar consumers by the end of the decade."

Trina Solar, with over 20 offices worldwide, has made a significant investment in the US and expects the market to keep expanding, Mendenhall said.

"We are strongly committed to sustainable solar manufacturing through continuous innovation and industry-leading environmental and corporate social responsibility," he said, pointing to industry awards for innovation and its donation of 200 PV panels (worth about $75,000) for a charitable project in Haiti.

The companies' optimism is based on strong growth in the US industry so far in 2012. According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, the sector's April-to-June quarter was its second-best ever, with 772 MW of solar electric capacity installed. That was 125 percent more than in last year's second quarter.

The upward trend is likely to continue, according to US Solar Market Insight, a quarterly publication of the association and GTM Research, which analyzes the renewable-energy industry: "As the US solar industry progresses toward 2016, it is becoming increasingly clear that system prices will fall significantly. This will enable a substantial volume of installations in some states to be built using only federal incentives.

"As system prices continue to fall," the report said, "additional markets will open up and drive demand despite the likelihood of waning state-level financial support for solar projects. Effective state policies, particularly those pertaining to net-metering and permitting, will still be needed in order to accelerate deployment in some markets."

Shi Zhengrong, Suntech's executive chairman and chief strategy officer, wrote in a blog post that the industry is "at the start of a new chapter. Solar is still the future - but it's ready today.

"To continue our progress, we can't afford to be distracted by international trade disputes," he added. "We need to encourage national policy-makers to engage in constructive dialogue to avert a solar trade war that would harm the many for the benefit of the few. We have to keep our eyes on the prize of deploying affordable solar energy for everyone, everywhere."

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