Dispatches from Intersolar: Is U.S. solar’s future dependent on Trump?

One word dominated the podium during the first day of Intersolar North America, which began today with its finance symposium.

Suniva.

In case you’ve been asleep since April, Suniva, a Georgia-based panel manufacturer – one that filed for bankruptcy earlier this yearhas also filed a Section 201 trade case that could exempt the United States from global trade agreements and allow President Donald J. Trump to take trade action against solar imports from multiple nations. Once the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) decided to take up the case (which was eventually joined and supported by SolarWorld), the industry’s reaction was swift and often angry.

But this morning, GTM Research’s Shayle Kann uttered the words that sent shivers down my spine and should probably terrify everyone connected to the solar industry in any way. After telling the audience that the trade case could cut the U.S. solar market by as much as 50% (reached for comment by email, Suniva’s lawyer, Christian Hudson, said “The only thing we would note is that Mr. Kann’s statement should have the word “could” in italics and bold.”), he discussed what could happen once the ITC’s report ends up on Trump’s desk on Nov. 13 as is currently planned.

“First, [Trump] could accept the remedies outlined in the initial complaint, which is unlikely,” Kann said. “Second, he could take whatever the ITC recommends and implements them.”

So far so good.

“Third, he could completely ignore all of that and do whatever he wants,” Kann continued.

I quickly looked around the room to see if anyone else had heard my heart hit my shoes. Since no one else reacted, I’m going to assume it was all in my head.

This is one piece of this case that I haven’t seen discussed, and that’s understandable: The case itself is only three months old, and the ITC’s decision is four months away. Plus, it’s summer – between vacations and, you know, installing solar, the attention of the industry isn’t laser-focused on the ramifications of Kann’s last point.

If there’s one issue Trump has been consistent on – and it doesn’t matter whether you think he’s right or wrong on it – is trade. He has said over and over that his No. 1 goal is to boost manufacturing jobs in the United States, and he’s expressed his willingness to declare trade wars with countries he doesn’t feel are being fair to U.S. workers.

And if there’s any case that could provide him the penultimate opportunity to score a victory on the battlefield, it’s the Suniva case. By imposing penalties on countries around the world, Trump could trumpet that he saved U.S. solar-module manufacturers. Unfortunately,  whether you believe IHS Markit or GTM Research, it’s becoming conventional wisdom that successful prosecution of the case could shrink the U.S. solar market.

What makes the Section 201 case so potentially dangerous is putting that much power into the hands of someone who has expressed disdain for the solar industry (based on inaccurate or outdated perceptions). And that is a truly scary thought.