President Donald Trump’s new tariff on solar-panel imports set off a wide assortment of reactions Tuesday on the politics of trade.
Critics saw the administration as following up on its promises to the coal industry by deliberately slowing expansion of renewable energy.
Supporters, however, see it as helping to stave off undercutting from foreign competitors in China and South Korea -- and as a valid response to intellectual property theft.
More than three years ago, SolarWorld Americas, the largest U.S. solar panel manufacturer, called for such tariffs. In a trade dispute, the company claimed Chinese military personnel hacked documents important to its business.
That’s one example of the business grievances Trump’s move appears to address. From elsewhere in the solar industry came dire predictions that the new tariff, of up to 30 percent, will slow ongoing projects, curb incentives for solar-energy farms, and kill U.S. jobs.
The tariff “will not create adequate cell or module manufacturing to meet U.S. demand, or keep foreign-owned Suniva and SolarWorld afloat,” but “will create a crisis in a part of our economy that has been thriving,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Remarkably, the administration is following the example of the European Union — which generally supports renewable energy.
Dave Keating of Fortune noted Tuesday that the EU “did the exact same thing in September of last year.” It set “minimum import duties for Chinese solar modules and cells that price them up to 30 percent above market levels,” he wrote.
And earlier this week, India imposed a 70 percent import duty on Chinese and Malaysian solar panels, stirring debate similar to that surrounding the U.S. announcement on Tuesday.
There are other dimensions to the issue. Tesla Inc., which last summer began producing solar cells in Buffalo, said the tariff shouldn't have much impact on its plans "thanks to a clause exempting a vast amount of solar panel components from the levies," Reuters reported.
Last summer, as discussion heated up in anticipation of Tuesday’s move, a bipartisan group of 16 senators and 53 House members sent open letters to the U.S. International Trade Commission advising against it.
Last month, another 11 members of Congress — eight representatives and three senators — sent letters to President Trump imploring him to impose “strong and effective remedies” as protection.
Now that the die is cast — with both solar panels and washing machines subject to new tariffs — questions arise about the future of certain overseas trade.
China on Tuesday predictably expressed “strong dissatisfaction” and said the solar tariff “aggravates the global trade environment.”
Whether a so-called trade war blossoms remains to be seen. Now, more than a year into the current administration, we’ll start to see who wins from this measure.