Solar cell and panel manufacturing is to industry as jazz is to music: It’s an American original.
In the early 1950s scientists at the former U.S. innovation powerhouse Bell Labs were first to harness the photoelectric effect on silicon — still the key material for solar cells and panels. Over the decades since then, U.S. entrepreneurs and engineers steadily boosted the efficiency of cells and panels, lowered their prices and developed numerous applications — first in space, at sea and in remote locations and then, by 2000, on the utility grid.
Secondary industries grew up to feed the solar cell and panel industry — among them, glass makers, aluminum extruders and conductive-ribbon manufacturers — employing thousands of Americans.
My employer was among them. Now called Ulbrich Solar Technologies, the firm got into the solar ribbon business in 1992, when U.S. solar manufacturing industries held great growth promise. Ulbrich continues to be a global leader in solar ribbon and wire technologies. These are vital module components that connect solar cells and transmit current.
Yet today, the U.S. solar cell and panel industry as well as many of its suppliers operate in perilous conditions, featuring financial losses, worker layoffs and plant closures.
Why? Because the People’s Republic of China resolved in its Five-year Planning Process to target the world solar industry for domination. Specifically, the Chinese government incentivized its industry to borrow U.S. and European technologies and build massive overcapacities. Since 2009, the Chinese industry has flooded world markets with cheap, subsidized products.
In two separate trade cases, SolarWorld Americas Inc., the largest U.S. cell and panel manufacturer, proved that the Chinese government was illegally subsidizing its state-sponsored export campaign and its industry participants were improperly selling products below cost in the U.S. market.
When the U.S. government imposed import duties, many of the Chinese producers set up operations in third countries, largely in Southeast Asia, to circumvent the duties.
Between 2012 and 2016, the U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that nearly 30 solar cell and panel manufacturers went out of business under pressure from imports, which surged 500 percent in the period. Today, the U.S. solar cell and panel industry is on the brink of extinction.
Now, a type of trade case reserved for extraordinary problems awaits a decision by President Trump. This Global Safeguards case already led to a 4-0 vote by the bipartisan International Trade Commission that the import surge has injured the domestic industry. It only remains to be seen what remedies the president will adopt.
The United States will be far better off in many ways — gains in energy independence, among them — in the long term with a strong solar technology and manufacturing base than it would be by being content merely to install Asian-built solar panels.
Trump has spoken often, both before and since he took office, about the unfair U.S.-China trade imbalances undercutting U.S. business. Now he has a chance to address the concerns in a trade remedy that will enable the domestic solar industry to participate in solar’s U.S. market growth.
My company is fortunate to survive the near-demise of the U.S. solar manufacturing industry by moving into specialty wires for other markets and applications. But the fallout has resulted in closed Ulbrich factories and many job losses. Many other U.S. companies that focused only on making solar cells, panels or panel components are now out of business.
With a strong and effective remedy, Trump can re-establish a healthy solar technology and manufacturing base in this country, which would bring back thousands of high-quality workers for cell and module manufacturers as well as the component and equipment suppliers that would support them.