RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Companies that make solar panels in this country want the government to slap a tariff on imported panels. You might call it a solar trade war, sparked by an invasion of inexpensive imports from China. Still, the American solar industry is divided over this. While panel-makers complain that their business is suffering, other parts of the industry say that cheap panels are driving a solar boom in the U.S.
NPR's Christopher Joyce has our story.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Gordon Brinser is a native Oregonian who says the company he runs there, SolarWorld, is not only green, it's red, white and blue.
GORDON BRINSER: The mission that we have is to, you know, build products here in America for America's community, for America's, you know, energy independence, and really leave the world a better place.
JOYCE: And Brinser says China is threatening that vision by flooding the U.S. with cheap solar panels. He claims China subsidizes its solar panel industry to the tune of $30 billion a year, yet uses only a small percentage of the panels it makes.
BRINSER: Obviously, these subsidies have gone into the industry, and their full intention is to export and control markets in other countries.
JOYCE: Brinser claims the imports contributed to the collapse of some U.S. manufacturers. He's petitioned the U.S. government to slap tariffs on imported Chinese panels. So far, the feds say, yes, American panel-makers have been harmed by Chinese imports. Yet to be determined is whether China is doing anything illegal: for instance, subsidizing panel-makers so they can sell below cost, a practice called dumping.
Brinser acknowledges that if he wins and tariffs are added, Americans will have to pay more for panels.
BRINSER: The prices will have to increase, you know, a little. They will find their new, natural balance in a competitive and legal environment.
JOYCE: But CASE, the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, says higher prices are bad for companies that install solar power. These companies far outnumber panel manufacturers. Kevin Lapidus works for CASE and is vice president of SunEdison, which builds and operates solar power systems.
KEVIN LAPIDUS: Fully 52 percent of the U.S. jobs are in the installation business. These are U.S. workers who wake up in the morning, put on a tool belt, and they go and build something.
JOYCE: Lapidus says solar power is just now shaking off its reputation as too pricey for regular people.
LAPIDUS: We're finally reducing the price of solar. We're driving down the costs to grow the solar base - installations, jobs, et cetera. And the SolarWorld trade case will increase the cost of electricity. It will set the industry back by years.
JOYCE: He says it could also start an international trade war with China.
At Solar Energy Services in Millersville, Maryland, a single stack of solar panels sits on the floor of a warehouse. Engineer Rick Peters says he got them cheap because the manufacturer folded. They just couldn't compete. He says mostly he buys Chinese panels.
RICK PETERS: Probably about 70 percent of what we install is Chinese panels.
JOYCE: Peters says some homeowners do like to buy American, but most want the best price. And Chinese panels are about 10 percent cheaper. A tariff could double their price, and Peters says that could push everyone's prices up.
PETERS: I'm very concerned about that. I think that it could significantly increase the price, because of the limited number of manufacturers in the U.S. And potentially, they could take advantage of the marketplace.
JOYCE: Raise their prices, as well?
JOYCE: Peters says that could have ripple effects for other U.S. manufacturers. He illustrates by cutting open a big box on the floor of the warehouse. Inside is an inverter, a device that every solar installation needs to convert direct current to the alternating current in your home. It costs about $4,500.
PETERS: This one is made by PV Powered, which is a U.S. manufacturer. A lot of the inverters are manufactured in the U.S.
JOYCE: Less installation means fewer inverters sold. Over the next several months, the federal government will decide whether China is playing fair or not.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.