U.S. Solar-Panel Maker Seeks Trade Tariffs on Foreign Rivals

By Cassandra Sweet Features Dow Jones Newswires

In a last-ditch effort to survive, bankrupt U.S. solar panel maker Suniva Inc. asked the Trump administration Wednesday to impose trade tariffs on all foreign-made solar cells.

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A lawyer for the company said Suniva filed a petition Wednesday morning with the U.S. International Trade Commission that seeks a four-year tariff of 40 cents a watt on all solar cells made outside the U.S. Solar cells are the high-tech semiconductors inside solar panels that convert sunlight into electricity.

Low-cost solar panels, mostly manufactured in Asia, have glutted the global market and pushed down panel prices by roughly 30% in 2016. Now the entire U.S. solar manufacturing industry is on the ropes and Suniva wants the new administration to intercede.

"President Trump has talked for a year about the importance of U.S. manufacturing," said Matt Card, Suniva's executive vice president of commercial operations, in an interview ahead of the filing. "Here's a chance to make a meaningful difference in the manufacturing outlook in one of the fastest-growing technology segments in the U.S. market today."

The petition asks the government to declare a minimum price of 78 cents per watt that foreign manufacturers can charge for panels, including the 40-cent tariff. By comparison, last year the average wholesale panel price in the U.S. dropped to 61 cents a watt, according to SPV Market Research. At one point last year, some solar panels sold wholesale for as little as 29 cents a watt.

Suniva is the second-largest U.S. solar panel maker by volume. It filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week after it laid off about 230 people and shut down its two factories in Georgia and Michigan. A year ago, the Norcross, Ga.-based company was in expansion mode until an influx of low-price panels flooded the U.S. in a matter of months.

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As part of its petition, the company is making a special argument for levying tariffs on solar equipment imported from Canada and Mexico. Those U.S. neighbors have protected trade status, but more panels have been coming across the borders, Mr. Card said.

"We think America ought to be in manufacturing, and it's our hope to rebuild those jobs," he said. "It's a battle worth taking on."

The Obama administration imposed tariffs on solar panels and cells imported from China and Taiwan in 2012 and 2013 after SolarWorld Inc., which owns the largest U.S. panel manufacturing operation in Hillsboro, Ore., filed a trade complaint with the U.S. government. Chinese manufacturers, which enjoy government subsidies and other financial support that give them an advantage over competitors, responded by opening new facilities in Vietnam, Thailand and other countries to get around those tariffs, analysts and solar companies say.

For instance, the U.S. imported $520 million worth of panels from Thailand last year, up from almost none in 2012, according to government import data cited by Suniva. Vietnam shipped $514 million worth of solar panels to the U.S. last year, up from less than $1 million worth in 2012.

China-based Trina Solar Ltd., one of the world's largest panel makers, established factories in Thailand and the Netherlands, and it manufactures products in Vietnam and Malaysia with local partners, according to a document Trina filed with U.S. regulators last year. A spokesman for Trina declined to comment.

Suniva is majority owned by Shunfeng International Clean Energy Ltd., based in Hong Kong. With a 63% stake in Suniva, Shunfeng helped the U.S. company triple its manufacturing capacity but it isn't putting any more money into the company, according to Mr. Card.

Shunfeng didn't respond to a request for comment.

Write to Cassandra Sweet at cassandra.sweet@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 26, 2017 10:03 ET (14:03 GMT)