Why a 255% tariff on solar panels won’t save American producers, nor hurt Chinese ones

A worker at Yingli Green Energy makes solar panels in Baoding, China. The US government says those panels are subsidized and then dumped into US markets.
A worker at Yingli Green Energy makes solar panels in Baoding, China. The US government says those panels are subsidized and then dumped into US markets.
Image: AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan
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The US Commerce Department has offered a helping hand to the ailing American solar industry with its final ruling on new tariffs against Chinese solar-cell producers. It says they accepted Chinese government subsidies and dumped goods into US markets at prices designed to undercut American competitors. This deluge of low-cost imported photovoltaics helped wash away a dozen US panel producers in the last year, so on Oct. 10, the Commerce Department assigned US customs officers to collect import penalties ranging from 24% to an eye-watering 255%.

Great news for American green energy? Not for firms like SolarCity, which is prepping a $201 million IPO, a rare bright spot in a generally gloomy industry. For such firms, these cheap, government-subsidized Chinese solar cells flooding US markets are an advantage, not a hindrance.

SolarCity leases solar energy systems to clients who want to pay less for electricity, and splits the profits with investors. The low cost of the imported solar cells it uses makes this cheap to do. If the prices of these panels rises, SolarCity and similar firms in the growing consumer solar sector, like SunRun and Sungevity, will lose out. And prices will rise if the tariffs disrupt Chinese imports, not only because the Chinese make things cheaply but because US solar producers, weakened by the Chinese competition, aren’t yet in a position to replace them.

SolarCity did in fact get lucky. The company has been paying the US government’s preliminary duties on Chinese solar panels, about 35%, but the Commerce Department has ruled that the Chinese suppliers listed in SolarCity’s S-1 (the paperwork a company files with the authorities before an IPO), Trina Solar and Yingli Green Energy, must pay lower-than-expected tariffs, of 24% and 31%, respectively.

However, the government’s attempt at protectionism is likely to backfire anyway. The global supply chain, after all, is a fast-evolving creature. While Yingli complained that the tariffs will make exports to the US unprofitable, SolarCity says its Chinese suppliers are already on the hunt for middle-men outside of both China and the US who can assemble their photovoltaic panels into final products to sell in America, tariff-free. Thanks to a loophole in the Commerce Department’s decision, they can do this with impunity.

Of course, that doesn’t make American solar-panel manufacturers happy. By contrast with Chinese manufacturers, whom China’s government has had no compunction about bailing out—hence the American complaints about subsidies—the US firms have struggled to obtain government support, due to tight post-recession budgets and the political partisanship around global warming. The solar-cell manufacturing lobby complained bitterly about the loophole. But it does mean prices of solar cells are likely to stay down, which is good for SolarCity and its kin.