On Halloween Tuesday last month four trade officials from the International Trade Commission recommended the United States impose constraints on solar equipment manufactured abroad, including tariffs up to 35 percent. These recommendations were sent to the White House, giving the president 60 days to make a decision.
This is significant, as the last time section 201 of the 1974 trade act was invoked, Nickelback was topping the Billboard charts. That 2002 case ended when President Bush’s proposed steel tariffs were struck down by the World Trade Organization. The solar industry can hope Suniva and SolarWorld’s grievance-born tariff proposals see a similar fate, but should remember the similarities to other trade cases are few and far between. While previous presidents may have heeded ITC recommendations, or even lowered the proposed tariffs, precedence has rarely applied since inauguration day 2017. In this 60 day lobbying sprint, solar industry insiders should know who their audience is — an audience of one.
Trump’s protectionist stance ironically does not bode well for domestic manufacturers, installers and ancillary solar companies. Raising prices on solar panels manufactured elsewhere may be a boon to some smaller stateside panel producers, but it will also make losers of American companies that benefit from cheaper imported panels. Faith that the current administration will recognize these complexities and deliver a sober, nuanced decision is not enough.
While President Trump touts the benefits of trade barriers in a variety of industries, he has yet to take action in any. A small case study for the solar industry comes again from steel — powerful lobbies in that sector stalled tariff initiatives earlier this summer, arguing the economics of any protectionist ruling would slice off the nose to spite the face. Solar lobbyists can adopt a similar tact, talking down a nativist president who might rank the political value of the decision over the monetary value.
If the solar industry can flip that assessment and bring the economic issues to the top of the administration’s mind, they may find more success in keeping tariffs at or, with luck, below the ITC recommendations.
It’s also worth citing the Trump-friendly TV personality Sean Hannity opposed the Section 201 petition in a recent radio ad, underscoring the non-binary complexities of the case. The opposition to these tariffs have sound talking points, including the 600-plus-page Climate Science Special Report that compels the country to maintain a strong solar industry, but those arguments will need to be tailored toward the only audience that matters — Donald Trump.