In the midst of a roiling debate about whether foreign imports are destroying U.S. solar cell and module manufacturing, another factory closing in Oregon – with 92 jobs in the balance – could be used to bolster the argument on the ‘yes’ side of that discussion.
Panasonic Eco Solutions Solar America (PESSA) announced on Wednesday that it will close its silicon ingot factory in Salem, Oregon and eliminate nearly 100 jobs in the process. In its letter to local officials, Toshihiro Nomura, president on PESSA, blamed the closing on “business conditions in our part of the solar industry” but did not specify of what conditions he spoke.
Silicon ingots are the building blocks for solar modules. They are cut into wafers, which are then made into solar cells. Then the cells are put together to make modules.
While the announcement might seem sudden, PESSA had slowly been reducing its workforce for at least a year. At its height, the plant employed 200 people after it opened as Sanyo Solar in 2009, but it laid off 50 workers in April 2016. The final 92 workers will start being laid off on Nov. 6, according to the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN Act) notice.
Panasonic’s announcement came barely a month after news emerged that module producer SolarWorld Americas has put its Hillsboro, Ore., plant up for sale. According to reports, that factory has 300 employees in limbo, awaiting the completion of what the company referred to as an “open-ended” M&A process to find out their fate.
The decision to close the Salem production facility also comes little less than a month after heated and often contentious testimony before the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), which is currently deciding whether bankrupt module manufacturer Suniva, along with co-petitioner SolarWorld, have been injured so severely by international competition that tariffs should be imposed on module imports.
During the testimony on Aug. 15, the Suniva/SolarWorld side presented evidence that at least 26 module manufacturers had shuttered factories and gone bankrupt since 2012 a time during which they claimed imports from competitors like China increased five-fold. Opponents of the Section 201 trade petition argue it wasn’t international competition but bad business decisions led to the bankruptcy of Suniva and the financial struggles of SolarWorld.
Furthermore, opponents say, backed up by two studies, that the U.S. market would be slashed by between 60% and 70% if the ITC finds in favor of the petitioners, putting 260,000 current solar jobs at risk. Suniva and SolarWorld dispute those numbers, producing their own study saying that a finding in their favor would create at least 114,000 new jobs.
The USITC has said it will decide by Sept. 22 whether sufficient injury has been done to solar manufacturing to warrant further action, and it expects to deliver a final report to President Donald J. Trump by Nov. 13, at which time a final disposition of the case will occur.
Suniva filed for bankruptcy on April 18 and filed trade complaints against its international competitors under Sections 201 and 202 of the Trade Act of 1974 with the ITC eight days later. It asks for “global safeguard relief” from imports of crystalline silicon solar PV cells and modules. SolarWorld joined the complaint a month later.
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