WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Monday approved tariffs on imported solar-energy components and large washing machines in a bid to help U.S. manufacturers.
The president’s decision followed recommendations for tariffs by the U.S. International Trade Commission.
“The president’s action makes clear again that the Trump administration will always defend American workers, farmers, ranchers, and businesses in this regard,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said in a statement announcing the decision.
Most imported solar modules will face an immediate tariff of 30 percent, with the rate declining before phasing out after four years.
For large residential washing machines, tariffs will start at up to 50 percent and phase out after three years.
The U.S. solar industry was split over the trade barriers.
The trade case grew out of a complaint by Suniva Inc., a Georgia-based subsidiary of a Chinese company, which declared bankruptcy last April. Suniva was joined by SolarWorld Americas, the U.S. subsidiary of a German company.
The U.S. Commerce Department imposed stiff anti-dumping duties on imported panels made from Chinese solar cells in 2012 and 2015. Tim Brightbill, SolarWorld Americas’ lawyer, said Chinese companies have gotten around those sanctions by assembling panels from cells produced in other Asian countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam.
Suniva and SolarWorld Americas sought the tariffs because, they said, a nearly 500 percent increase in imported solar panels over five years had led to a ruinous price collapse. Nearly 30 U.S. solar-manufacturing facilities had closed in the past five years, they said, as China plotted to flood the global market with cheap products to weaken U.S. manufacturing.
Suniva spokesman Mark Paustenbach called tariffs “a step forward for this high-tech solar-manufacturing industry we pioneered right here in America.”
However, solar installers and manufacturers of other equipment used to run solar-power systems opposed tariffs, which they said will raise their prices and hurt demand for the renewable energy.
The Solar Energy Industries Association, which represents installation companies, said billions of dollars of solar investment will be delayed or canceled, leading to the loss of 23,000 jobs this year.
Mark Bortman, founder of Exact Solar in Philadelphia, said the prospect of tariffs – since the trade commission recommended them in October – had already caused him to delay hiring and expansion plans.
“Solar is really just starting to take off because it is truly a win-win-win situation” for consumers, workers and the environment, he said. “Tariffs would really be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
The case for tariffs on washing machines was pushed by Benton Harbor, Michigan-based Whirlpool Corp. The company’s chairman, Jeff Fettig, said tariffs on imported machines would create new manufacturing jobs in Ohio, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee.
“This is a victory for American workers and consumers alike,” Fettig said. “By enforcing our existing trade laws, President Trump has ensured American workers will compete on a level playing field with their foreign counterparts.”
But Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said Republicans need to understand that tariffs are a tax on consumers.
“Moms and dads shopping on a budget for a new washing machine will pay for this – not big companies,” Sasse said in a statement.
Suniva, SolarWorld and Whirlpool were helped by a 1974 trade law that lets companies seek trade protection if they can show damage from a rise in imports.
Up to certain levels, imports of solar cells will be exempt from the tariff, while the first 1.2 million imported large washing machines will get a lower tariff, peaking at 20 percent.
Congress has no authority to change or veto Trump’s decision. Countries affected by the decision can appeal to the World Trade Organization.
A consultant for SolarWorld said tariffs on imports could create up to 45,000 U.S. jobs, assuming that domestic capacity grows, and installation jobs would also increase. But U.S. manufacturing of solar cells employed only about 1,300 people at its recent peak in 2012, according to the trade commission.
While U.S. solar-cell manufacturing has shriveled, installations – from home rooftops to utility-scale operations – have boomed. Installations have soared more than tenfold since 2010, with the biggest jump coming in 2016, after prices for solar panels collapsed. In 2016, solar was the largest source of new U.S. electricity-generating capacity.
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