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U.S. tariffs on Chinese solar cells fuel debate about green jobs

Some domestic solar manufacturers praised the recent import levy as a victory for job creation, but an analysis of the industry suggests the duty may actually be a job killer.

April 23, 2012|By Ken Bensinger, Los Angeles Times
  • According to a study by the Solar Foundation, 52,503 Americans worked in the solar installation business last year. Above, SolarCity workers Daniel Morabito, left, Sal Sanchez and Victor Zapata install solar panels in West L.A.
According to a study by the Solar Foundation, 52,503 Americans worked in… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

A simmering trade dispute is highlighting a debate about the kinds of jobs America can sustain in a greening economy.

The Obama administration's recent decision to slap import tariffs on Chinese solar cells was hailed by some domestic solar manufacturers as a victory for job creation, leveling the field while also sending a powerful message to Beijing about monopolistic behavior in crucial industries.

But a close look at the U.S. solar industry suggests that the tariffs may actually be a job killer because the vast majority of positions in the sector aren't on the assembly line. Instead, upward of 70% of U.S. solar employment is in installation, sales and distribution — and companies that hire those workers argue solar cells must get significantly cheaper to remain competitive with other energy sources.

"What China is doing to boost its manufacturers is unfair, but tariffs could actually reduce jobs," said Gordon Johnson, a green tech analyst at Axiom Capital Management. "The price of solar panels goes up and looks unaffordable compared to alternatives."

Although the U.S. pioneered photovoltaic solar cells decades ago, it has fallen increasingly behind lower-cost manufacturers of the technology, including China, South Korea and Malaysia. But the U.S. is among the world's fastest-growing solar consumers, opening vast opportunities for service-sector jobs in the sunlight-extraction business.

The matter comes to a head next month, when the Commerce Department will announce a determination on a possible second round of tariffs on Chinese-made silicon-based photovoltaic cells, which convert sunlight into electricity and are by far the most popular solar technology.

While tariff advocates say that protecting a solar manufacturing base is crucial to the nation's energy security, others argue the U.S. has already lost that footrace. Instead of swooping in to rescue remaining plants, they say, the focus should be on reducing the cost of solar to speed liberation from fossil fuels, which dovetails with the goal of reducing unemployment.

"Installation is where all the jobs are," said John Smirnow, vice president of trade and competitiveness at the Solar Energy Industry Assn. "There are 5,600 companies in the healthy, vibrant and growing solar-services sector."

The Commerce Department's May 17 ruling, in response to allegations of dumping by the U.S. unit of a German solar panel maker, could fundamentally alter the solar landscape in the U.S. Dumping is when a company or industry sells its products below cost to capture the market. If additional tariffs are applied, they will probably be much higher than the relatively light first round announced in March, which ran from 2.6% to 4.7%.

The smaller tariffs — designed to balance out Chinese subsidies of its solar factories — could squeeze margins for installers, but most experts agree they aren't enough to radically reduce consumption. Anti-dumping duties, however, could run above 20%, dramatically increasing the cost of switching to solar.

Cost is a key factor in getting businesses and homeowners to convert to solar power. A typical residential roof setup costs about $25,000, which federal, state and local rebates and tax incentives can cut to about $13,000 in the city of Los Angeles. At that price, it still could take about a dozen years for the systems to pay back the upfront costs through lower electricity bills.

If tariffs on Chinese cells come in as high as many predict, they could raise the out-of-pocket cost of such an installation by $1,250 — and commercial projects by far more.

Such an increase could be a deal breaker for many would-be customers, especially with a 30% federal tax credit set to expire after 2016, said Lyndon Rive, chief executive of SolarCity, the nation's largest solar installer.

SolarCity has 1,600 employees in 14 states and is hiring three new employees a day. The San Mateo, Calif., company puts solar panels onWal-Martstores, government offices and university campuses, as well as thousands of houses.

"The No. 1 decision for our customers in terms of going solar is whether they can save money," said Rive, who worries that higher prices could offset government subsidies. Several European countries are already curtailing solar incentives, he said. "We have to be competitive with whatever the local power company is charging, or we're in trouble."

According to a study by the Solar Foundation, 52,503 Americans worked in the solar installation business last year, and 17,722 worked in sales and distribution, compared with 24,064 in manufacturing. And although almost 10,000 new installation jobs were created in 2010 and 2011, manufacturing actually lost 1,000 positions while seeing several domestic makers go out of business, including Solyndra, which failed despite government loan guarantees.

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