Federal ruling is expected to hurt solar industry in Vermont

The International Trade Commission found on Friday that solar panel importers have hurt American manufacturers by flooding the United States with cheap goods.

Solar panels are being imported “in such increased quantities as to be a substantial cause of serious injury to the domestic industry,” according to the ITC’s ruling.

The commission is expected to recommend that President Donald Trump impose tariffs on solar panels from China and other Asian countries.

A tariff, or tax on foreign goods, would likely drive up the cost of solar installations in Vermont.

The mere threat of a tariff has already cast a cloud of uncertainty on the economic outlook for solar companies, industry representatives say.

Kevin McCollister, co-founder of Randolph-based Catamount Solar, says that an expected price hike has already led to panel shortages.

Shortly after news of the trade case hit the stands in May, McCollister said, “all the utility-scale developers basically bought up the supply.”

“For Vermonters, especially for the smaller players in the industry … the immediate impact has been severe supply constraints,” he said. “We had to really scramble to secure the parts to complete our projects this year.”

The ITC must issue a recommendation to Trump by mid-November. Trump has until mid-January to settle on a remedy, which will go into effect at the end of that month.

The commission was asked to intervene by Georgia solar-panel maker Suniva and Oregon-based solar firm SolarWorld. In May, the two companies asked for both a tariff and a price floor on imported solar panels. Suniva was owned by a Chinese firm before declaring bankruptcy in 2016; SolarWorld is owned by a German firm that became insolvent earlier this year.

The trade protections could slash solar development by 50 percent in 2019 and wipe out nearly 90,000 jobs nationwide, according to a letter from four governors who have asked Trump to reject the proposal.

Gov. Phil Scott was not among the signatories, although Vermont has the third highest number of solar jobs per capita in the nation.

When asked whether the governor meant to express to Trump any support or objection to the potential tariff, Rebecca Kelley, Scott’s spokeswoman, said in an email that his administration is monitoring the issue and seeking to learn more about the tariff’s possible effects. Initial assessments indicate the tariff “could drive up costs here in Vermont,” Kelley said.

Olivia Campbell-Andersen, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, is asking the state’s congressional delegation to intervene.

“We need our congressional delegation to do everything they can as this case proceeds at the International Trade Commission and before the president to help us keep the cost of solar power low,” Campbell-Andersen said.

“The president says he ‘will do what’s best for the United States’,” Campbell-Andersen said. “If he truly means that, then he must reject actions that would increase electricity costs and refrain from imposing new taxes and limiting supply of solar panels.”

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