Solar Trade Dispute: Behind the Jobs Numbers

A recent report has generated lots of buzz by finding that as many as 50,000 jobs could be lost over the next three years if a 100 percent tariff is placed on Chinese solar panels. Yet from where I’m sitting, I see a far different number from the same report: The industry could add 15,000 jobs by 2014.

Those numbers don’t add up, right? Well, they do, but it’s all a matter of perspective, and how you look at the assumptions.

The Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, which is battling SolarWorld’s position that low-cost Chinese panels are violating international trade law, commissioned The Brattle Group to do an independent analysis of the effect on American jobs. The report found that a 100 percent tariff scenario would shut the lower-priced Chinese modules out of the U.S. market, and that the domestic demand for solar would slow down because module prices would be 25 to 30 percent higher. It’s true that most Chinese modules would effectively be shut out of the U.S. market and that costs would subsequently rise.

The industry is desperate to learn more about the impact of the pending tariffs, most notably on how they will affect jobs. To get the full story, you have to understand the baseline on jobs used in this report.

The jobs math

According to the Solar Foundation, the U.S. solar industry grew to 100,000 jobs from August 2010 to August 2011. The Brattle Group report assumes a 24 percent growth to 124,000 solar jobs in 2012. What it doesn’t include, according to report author Mark Berkman, is the projection that the U.S. solar industry will get to 140,000 jobs by 2014.

Digging a little deeper, the report’s worst-case scenario envisions that the 50,000 lost jobs will include about half tied directly to the industry. These are your sales reps, installers, consultants and so on. The other 25,000 are very loosely tied to the industry and reflect the impact on reduced economic activity, aligned with things like groceries, clothing, financial services, real estate and health care.

What the report is really saying is that in a worst-case scenario, 25,000 solar industry jobs won’t be created between now and 2014. Back that out from the 40,000 the report assumes will be created, and you end up with 15,000 new solar-industry jobs in the next three years. That projection is actually not far off the rate of growth we saw last year when U.S. solar jobs grew at a 6.8 percent clip.

Taken in context, these numbers are a far cry from the handwringing of 50,000 current solar industry workers getting a pink slip between now and then.

Growing installations

Why could we have more jobs when the solar industry is predicted to contract after the tariffs? The report clearly says “reduced demand leads to fewer installations, which in turn reduces the number of solar-related jobs in the U.S.” The term “fewer installations” could mean fewer installations than the year before. In this case, it likely means fewer installations than expected.

The report finds that solar installations will continue to increase, just not as fast had the trade case never been filed. Under the worst-case tariff scenario, about 1.7 GW of PV would still be installed in 2012, the same as the projected totals for 2011 and roughly twice as much as was installed in the U.S. in 2010. Even under this worst-case scenario, those new installation numbers grow to 2.2 GW in 2013 and 3.2 GW in 2014.

Here’s why I’m optimistic about this report. While it clearly shows that the industry will suffer because of the tariffs, its effects are far less than what was being feared in the weeks and months after the case was filed. More than anything, it shows that even with a shakeup of this magnitude, the American solar industry will weather the storm — it’ll keep adding jobs, it’ll keep expanding its role in our energy mix, and it will keep making itself more relevant and more mainstream, regardless of where the panels are being made.

The politics of it all

Other directions are becoming evident as this trade investigation lingers on. As far as the Department of Commerce is concerned, the political posturing between the competing coalitions is falling on deaf ears. The investigation is going forward, and no number of reports or statements from either side is going to impact the final determination.

SolarWorld recently trumpeted the recent DOC ruling that Chinese panels are flooding the market ahead of the investigation deadline as an indication of “critical circumstance” — allowing for tariffs to be retroactively extended as far back as early December. According to Maxim Group solar analyst Aaron Chew, that’s not entirely the case either. He makes a convincing argument that the expiration of the Section 1603 grant had too big of an impact on the flow of Chinese modules for the DOC to ignore. While he says it’s likely that tariffs will be imposed, it’s unlikely that the DOC will rule in its more stringent final determination that there was no other possible cause for the more recent rise in module imports.

Both the jobs report and DOC’s critical circumstance determination translate in a very real way to the divisiveness within the solar industry. The impacts that tariffs would have on the U.S. industry go beyond just the price of panels. The solar industry remains in the crosshairs of a GOP-led House that has little taste for legislation that would benefit clean energy. The reason, they say, is that these technologies are unreliable and unpredictable. When both sides push the notion that one trade case can derail or save the domestic industry, it plays right into the hands of critics who want to paint solar as economically fragile and unworthy of further investment.

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