Sun Block

How Protectionism Dims the Solar Sector's Prospects

Secret Service agents at a solar plant in Florida during a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, October 2009. JIM YOUNG / REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump’s reported request to Oval Office staff to “bring me some tariffs” may soon be answered by an unlikely source: the solar power industry. In a recent decision on a case at the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), commission members unanimously (4-0) decided to open the door to protectionist measures against crystalline solar panel imports from nearly every country. As of 2016, an estimated 87 percent of U.S. solar installations use foreign-assembled panels, which means that the ruling could bring a future that is significantly less bright for solar energy in the United States. Although many doubt that the U.S. president’s “America First” trade policy will create new jobs or improve trade imbalances, the ITC’s recommendation will allow him to test that stance via solar power by January 12.


The original petition was filed with the trade commission in April by two companies, SolarWorld and Suniva, which are both currently undergoing bankruptcy proceedings. Using a rarely implemented clause of the Trade Act of 1974 (the most recent such case was undertaken in 2002 in the steel industry), the two companies claimed that domestic solar manufacturing had suffered from rapidly increasing imports. The petitioners based their claim on the need to protect domestic manufacturing jobs—perhaps a way to appeal to the president—but their American bona fides are not entirely clear since their ownership structures include funding from Germany, China and Qatar. 

Laying the foundation stone for a solar plant in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, November 2015.
Laying the foundation stone for a solar plant in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, November 2015. STRINGER / REUTERS

Almost immediately, nearly all of the rest of the U.S. solar industry decried the petition because of its potential detrimental impact to U.S. solar installations. Now the ITC will have to make recommendations to Trump about how to implement the decision, and he will have wide leeway to enact measures that could threaten about half of expected U.S. solar installations and 88,000 American jobs in the next five years, according to the Solar

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