China’s solar panels have made it hard for US companies to compete. Photo: Supplied

President Joe Biden extended tariffs on imported solar panels in February 2022 in a bid to protect domestic manufacturing. These tariffs add a 14%-15% tax on cheaper imports, raising their cost in the US. At the same time, the Biden administration is urging an expansion of renewable energy and energy security, two priorities for many countries.

To understand why the tariffs were extended, it’s helpful to understand their historical impact. US engineers invented the solar cell, the part of the panel that generates electricity, in the 1950s at Bell Labs. The country was a world leader in manufacturing until about 20 years ago.

Several solar cells connected together make up a typical photovoltaic solar module. Producing the most common type of PV module, a crystalline silicon module, is a multistep process. As global demand for solar-generated energy increased, many of these steps began occurring in China or involved Chinese companies in Southeast Asia.

Until 2011, the US was a net exporter of PV modules. As PV module prices dropped precipitously in 2010, many US and German companies could no longer compete and closed operations.

US companies asserted that China was providing unfair subsidies and its companies were dumping solar cells – selling them at less than the cost to manufacture them – to drive out competition.

A small, square solar cell in plastic dish.
Scientists at the National Renewable Energy Lab have been developing next-generation solar cells. A PV module, or solar panel, is made up of several cells. Photo: NREL via The Conversation / Dennis Schroeder

The US placed its first and second set of tariffs on Chinese cells and modules in 2012 and 2015, citing unfair trade practices.

However, low-cost modules and cells still came into the US from outside China, particularly as Chinese companies added manufacturing in neighboring countries not subject to those duties. Most of the material to make cells and modules was still increasingly coming from China.

In 2018, the US government put in place the Section 201 tariff, a four-year safeguard to give domestic PV manufacturers temporary relief from the “serious” injury imports were causing them.

The duties began at 30% on most imported modules, decreasing 5% each year until 2022, when the rate dropped to 15%. PV cells were also subject to these duties, but the first 2.5 gigawatts of imported cells were exempt to allow companies that assemble modules some relief while encouraging PV cell manufacturing in the US.

Modules produced from cadmium telluride, rather than crystalline silicon, were also exempt, and in 2019 bifacial modules – which are designed with a clear backing so that energy is produced when light hits the front or the back of the panel – also became exempt. Both are used primarily for large solar farms.

The tariffs are considered a major factor in the more than tripling of crystalline silicon module assembly capacity in the US between 2018 and 2020, and also in the recent scale-up of cadmium telluride module manufacturing by First Solar. That US company benefited from the increased market price of competing crystalline silicon PV modules.

In addition to the tariffs, many module assembly manufacturers cited supply contracts with utilities or roofing companies and the 2018 US corporate tax reduction as critical deciding factors for ramping up manufacturing.

Companies assembling modules in the US benefited from the ability to import virtually all of their cells without tariffs – the 2.5-gigawatt quota was not hit until a month before the initial four-year term ended – while competing against imported modules that were subject to the tariff.

A worker in a hard hat and construction vest walks between rows of solar panels in a field.
Utility-scale solar use has grown quickly in the US in recent years. Photo: Getty Images via The Conversation / Robert Nickelsberg

Still, even with the tariffs in place, around 80% of solar modules installed in the US during the initial four-year term were imported. According to trade data, just over half of PV modules imported in 2020 were not subject to the Section 201 tariffs.

Additionally, modules produced in the US still rely heavily on China for parts, such as the aluminum frame and glass. Soon after the Section 201 tariffs were put in place, the US government placed Section 301 tariffs on these Chinese products, increasing the cost of assembling PV modules in the US.

The tariffs did not result in an increase in the domestic production of PV cells.

Because the Section 201 tariffs did not apply to the first 2.5 gigawatts of imported cells, a cap that was not reached in the first three years of tariff implementation, virtually all cells bought in the US have been free of Section 201 tariffs.

Therefore, the tariff provided no competitive advantage for PV cells domestically produced. As of the end of 2021, there was no PV cell production in the US.

The impact of the tariff on solar deployment in the US is less clear.

The tariffs were put in place during a period when global PV module prices were falling. So, while there was a general runup in price when the tariffs were first proposed, US panel prices have since trended downward and are lower than before the tariffs took effect, though they remain above global average prices.

In fact, more solar capacity was installed in the US during the Section 201 tariffs than at any other time in history, in large part because of the low cost.

Two workers in wide-rimmed hats install solar panels on a roof
The tariffs on solar panel imports raised concerns about U.S. installation jobs, which were among the fastest-growing job sectors in the country. Photo: Getty Images via The Conversation / Joe Raedle

Still, the US solar trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, claims that the US would have installed 11% more solar, employed 62,000 more people and had US$19 billion more in investment without the tariffs.

Most US solar jobs are associated with building projects, not manufacturing equipment, and developers have said the higher prices forced them to delay or cancel solar projects. At the end of 2020, of 231,000 US solar jobs, only 31,000, 13%, were in manufacturing.

The Biden administration set a US goal in 2021 to reach zero carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 2035 to stop its role in climate change. That will require quadrupling 2020’s record level of annual solar deployment by the end of the decade.

Tariffs have the potential to slow deployment by making PV systems more expensive. That could be offset, however, by mandates and significant public and private investment in the solar sector.

The US goals are part of a larger global effort to both increase local energy security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which will likely require significant expansion of solar manufacturing. The US has the potential to be part of this larger global supply chain, but it must scale up to compete.

David J Feldman is Financial Analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.