Trump Solar Duties Strike At $161 Billion China-Led Industry

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s tariffs on solar-panel imports to the U.S. are a swipe at an industry that drew in $161 billion of investment globally last year and is dominated by companies in China.

The move may add 10 percent to the cost of a utility-scale solar farm in the U.S. and about 4 percent to rooftop units bought for homes, according to a report Tuesday by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. GTM Research estimated it may cut U.S. installations by 11 percent over the next five years. But the decision is unlikely to reshape the economics of the photovoltaic business or threaten China’s leadership of the industry.

“The global solar industry will adjust,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “I don’t believe this decision will reverse the solar expansion in the U.S."

For a QuickTake on why Trump levied duties on solar panels, click here.

Below are charts using BNEF data showing the shape of the global solar industry and providing clues about who will feel the impact of Trump’s decision. The first shows which nations lead in manufacturing of the most popular kind of solar panel -- those comprised of crystalline silicon produced in furnace-like ovens and sliced into wafer-thin cells by diamond saws.

While Bell Labs in the U.S. invented the modern photovoltaic cell in the 1950s, the industry has flourished elsewhere since. Japanese companies including Sharp Corp. kept solar alive in the 1990s when the west’s energy policy focused on cheap oil and gas. Germany’s subsidies for solar started in the early 2000s, making it the biggest manufacturer and installer of panels for almost a decade.

China’s government started supporting solar manufacturers in the middle of the last decade with cheap loans from state-controlled institutions led by China Development Bank Corp. The result, as the chart below shows, is that Chinese companies dominate PV manufacturing.

China has become by far the biggest market for solar panels, dwarfing all other markets combined. The government is seeking both to clear up pollution that blights city air and feed galloping demand for electricity. The chart below shows the U.S. running a distant second to China in terms of global solar panel sales, with India starting to catch up.

A handful of companies led by Risen Energy Co. and Trina Solar Ltd. are the leading panel exporters to the U.S. Those are the companies that are likely to feel the impact of the tariffs on sales they make to the U.S., though Trina said in a statement Tuesday that the move will also hurt U.S. businesses and consumers. The chart below shows them ranked by value of sales.

BNEF doesn’t expect the tariffs to benefit U.S. manufacturers, partly because they only last a few years, according to Hugh Bromley, an analyst at the London-based research arm of Bloomberg LP.

“Anyone expecting a U.S. manufacturing renaissance as a result of these tariffs is set to be disappointed,” Bromley said. “A tariff lasting only four years and ratcheting down quickly is unlikely to attract any manufacturing investment that was not going to occur anyway.”

For further reading about how the solar industry emerged from the lab, click here.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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