NC Republicans rally to save state’s solar industry

A solar farm built last year in Robeson County by Chapel Hill’s Strata Solar is one of 130 the company has built in the state and contributes to North Carolian’s 2nd-place national ranking for total solar energy capacity.
A solar farm built last year in Robeson County by Chapel Hill’s Strata Solar is one of 130 the company has built in the state and contributes to North Carolian’s 2nd-place national ranking for total solar energy capacity. Robert Willett

North Carolina’s Republican members of Congress have joined forces with the solar energy industry in a bid to save thousands of solar jobs in the state.

In the uncharacteristic show of support for solar power, the state’s two Republican U.S. senators and eight GOP members of the U.S. House are urging the federal government to allow the flow of cheap imports of Chinese and Asian solar panels into the state. The dramatic price drop of solar panels in recent years fueled a boom in solar farm development in North Carolina, making solar power increasingly affordable for households, businesses and utility companies.

North Carolina is second in the nation in installed solar farm power capacity, behind solar powerhouse California, and would be one of the nation’s biggest losers if solar panel prices rose as a result of a global trade war. The threat to cheap solar panels stems from a case alleging unfair trade practices that was heard Tuesday at the U.S. International Trade Commission in Washington. Two U.S. solar panel manufacturers that are in bankruptcy are asking the federal government to levy steep import tariffs on foreign solar panels.

The request would more than double the cost of solar panels, forcing solar developers to raise the prices they charge to customers. The Solar Energy Industry Association estimates North Carolina would stand to lose 4,700 jobs, among some 88,000 solar jobs at risk nationwide, if the feds slap the import tariff on Asian solar panels. The jobs affected would be field installers, rooftop installers, as well as makers of racks, inverters and other components.

“It would financially disqualify a bunch of projects in the pipeline,” said Tom Kosto, executive vice president of the 350-employee solar division of Fayetteville-based Horne Brothers Construction. “It would basically just kill it.”

Kosto, who has traveled to Washington to discuss the issue with members of Congress and the U.S. Department of Commerce, predicted the tariff would cost 200 solar-related jobs at his company.

If the International Trade Commission sides with the two struggling solar panel manufacturers and recommends a tariff, the final decision would be up to President Donald Trump, who in the past has expressed support for measures to protect American manufacturers and home-grown industries against foreign competitors. The ITC will decide next month whether to recommend the full tariff requested, a smaller tariff or reject it outright. If it’s recommended, Trump would have until mid-January to make a final decision.

In a trade dispute that pits the solar industry against itself, North Carolina’s solar industry has come down overwhelmingly on the side opposing the tariffs. The state has no solar panel manufacturing sites that would benefit from a tariff on imports.

North Carolina’s Republican-dominated state legislature has attempted to undo subsidies and other programs that promote solar and renewables. But the tariff proposal has unified Republicans in Washington in support of solar power.

This month U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who lives in Huntersville, urged the International Trade Commission to reject the tariff petition.

“The tariffs would especially hurt residential rooftop solar projects that are growing rapidly,” Tillis wrote to the commission. “Increasing costs will stop solar growth dead in its tracks, threatening tens of thousands of American workers in the solar industry.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of Winston-Salem wrote in July that the “success of solar energy in the state and the projected growth in the future will only continue if there is certainty in the supply chain.”

The state’s senators were joined by 53 members of Congress, including nine from North Carolina – Democrat Rep. David Price from Chapel Hill and eight Republicans, including Rep. George Holding from Raleigh.

“Last year, solar was the single largest source of new electric generating capacity in American,” the House members wrote this month. “We are concerned that the requested trade protection would sharply increase the price of solar panels which would lead to a negative impact across the whole solar industry.”

Bob Kingery, owner of 70-employee Southern Energy Management in Morrisville, said the proposed tariff would raise the cost of a 5-kilowatt residential solar array from about $11,000 to $13,000, a total price that covers equipment and labor, and includes a 30 percent federal tax credit. He said the price increase would add more than two years for the system to pay for itself, from at least a decade currently. That would cut the company’s solar revenue by a third as rooftop solar panels became economically unfeasible for middle-class households.

“Every time the payback goes down, the bull’s-eye gets smaller,” Kingery said. “When you add two or two-and-a-half years to the payback, it’s hard to make that up.”

The two companies asking for the tariff on imported photovoltaic cells are Georgia-based Suniva and Solar World Americas, based in Oregon. Suniva is majority-owned by a Chinese company and Solar World is majority-owned by a German business. They are asking the International Trade Commission to ensure that imported solar panels cost at least 78 cents a watt, compared with the market price this year for modules that fell below 35 cents before creeping up since the ITC case was filed. The petitioners argue that the tariff would level the playing field and could generate more than 100,000 jobs in the United States.

The Solar Energy Industries Association, in its filing with the commission, alleges that the cause of Suniva’s and Solar World’s troubles were bad business decisions, not unfair trade practices. SEIA said the potential loss of 4,700 jobs in North Carolina represents about a third of the state’s solar workforce.

However, the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, an advocacy group for the renewables industry, counted about 5,439 full-time equivalent solar energy-related jobs in the state last year, or 16 percent of the state’s renewable workforce. The loss of one-third of solar jobs by that estimate would constitute about 1,800 positions.

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski