The U.S. International Trade Commission is expected to vote at 11 a.m. today on whether significant damage has been done to the solar cell and module manufacturing segment of the U.S. solar industry at the behest of two companies – Suniva and SolarWorld. Here’s how we got here:
The first sign that Suniva was in trouble was mass layoffs at its Georgia headquarters and the closing of a plant in Saginaw, Michigan.
The affected employees file a lawsuit, saying the company did not provide them the required warnings of the layoffs.
April 18: Suniva files for chapter 11 bankruptcy
One week after the class-action lawsuit was filed, Suniva officially files for bankruptcy. A judge puts a hold on the employees’ suit until the bankruptcy is discharged – something that still has not happened five months later.
Suniva files a petition with the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) under Sections 201 and 202 of the Trade Act of 1974. The petition, which would eventually come to be known by the shorthand “the Section 201 trade case” calls for “global safeguard relief” from imports of crystalline silicon solar PV cells and modules, which it said drove the company into bankruptcy. Suniva asks for a minimum import price of $0.78 per watt for modules and $0.40 for cells.
The first of two reports – this one from IHS Markit – claims a decision in favor of Suniva could slash the industry 60%, a claim Suniva vigorously denies.
One of Suniva’s creditors, SQN Capital Management, offers to make the Section 201 case if the Chinese would just pony up $55 million – or the amount of money Suniva owed them. As part of the deal, SQN promises to dissolve Suniva.
After consideration of the facts, the USITC agrees to consider the case, setting dates for testimony from interested parties on Aug. 15, as well as deadlines for its finding of injury and its report to President Donald J. Trump. The industry reacts with surprise but gears up for what it expects to be a bruising fight.
In a reversal of its previously stated coolness to Suniva’s trade petition, SolarWorld Americas becomes a co-petitioner in the case. Not long after this announcement, SolarWorld Americas’ parent company, SolarWorld AG, files for bankruptcy in Germany. Its U.S. subsidiary tells its customers that it plans to continue operating, saying it was business as usual at its Oregon manufacturing plant.
In the first of what would eventually seem like endless letters of support and opposition, Congressmen from the home districts of Suniva’s operations file a letter with the USITC offering full-throated support for the petition.
While the USITC was conducting its investigation, the effects of the trade case are already being felt in the industry. Developers find it difficult to sign contracts for future projects because of the uncertainty surrounding possible hikes in module prices as a result of the case. In addition, developers start buying modules in bulk, causing a shortage three months earlier than during a typical year.
A coalition of solar companies, led by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), team with free-market conservatives to form the Energy Trade Action Coalition, vowing to lobby Congress, President Trump and the U.S. International Trade Commission to derail the petition.
The co-petitioners release an internally produced study that claims a successful conclusion to the trade case (meaning a finding in their favor) would create jobs, not destroy them. SEIA fires back that the bankruptcies of the two companies were the result of bad business decisions, not international competition.
A bipartisan coalition of U.S. legislators file a letter with the USITC asking the commission to throw out the petition and find no injury has been done to Suniva/SolarWorld.
Both sides in the trade dispute testify before the USITC, offering vastly differing views of the effects of the trade case on the industry. The testimony comes on the heels of a USITC staff report that says 27 solar module manufacturers have gone bankrupt since 2012.
Solar racking, tracking and mounting systems manufacturers file a note with the USITC saying a decision in favor of the petitioners will send their production into tailspins.
One of the country’s largest utilities comes out against the petition, arguing a favorable decision could destabilize the industry.
The battle of endorsements continues as steel manufacturers throw their support to Suniva/SolarWorld. The steel industry was the last one to file a Section 201 case successfully, though a post-mortem study of the results of the case show mixed results at best.
Reports emerge that if the USITC recommends tariffs, President Trump will impose them, though how steep the tariffs remains unclear.
The Alliance for American Manufacturing, a group that claims to be a coalition of unions and manufacturers, adds its name to a growing number of groups supporting Suniva/SolarWorld’s Section 201 trade petition.
SEIA files a letter with the USITC arguing that Suniva and SolarWorld haven’t filed restructuring plans that show they have a path forward if the USITC decides in their favor, which they say invalidates the entire petition. The companies counter with a letter of their own, saying no such requirement exists.
September 21: Miltary vets beg USITC to dismiss trade petition
Arguing that a decision in favor of Suniva/SolarWorld could impair military readiness and resiliency, 14 former military personnel sent a letter to the U.S. International Trade Commission yesterday asking them to dismiss the Section 201 trade complaint.