MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The U.S. solar industry is booming. And in large part, that's because of cheap, imported solar panels. But the U.S. International Trade Commission recently ruled those imports also hurt American manufacturers. Tomorrow the commission will advise President Trump on how to fix that. In a moment - the concerns over possible tariffs or quotas. First, Cassandra Profita of Oregon Public Broadcasting visits one of the companies that brought the trade case.
CASSANDRA PROFITA, BYLINE: At the SolarWorld plant outside Portland, robots do much of the work of building solar cells into panels.
JOHN CLASON: So the solar cells are in a carrier here. They're picked up. They're put on this belt.
PROFITA: John Clason loads stacks of solar cells the size of large drink coasters into the automated machines.
CLASON: These panels that we're making right now are just about 300 watts each.
PROFITA: Those panels can't compete with a surge of cheap solar panel imports SolarWorld says are being sold at below market prices that violate trade rules. Earlier this year, SolarWorld declared bankruptcy, and Clason was laid off along with more than 300 other workers at the factory.
CLASON: That was when we knew that something was amiss. And nobody knew exactly how deep the cuts were going to go.
PROFITA: SolarWorld and another manufacturing company, Suniva, want tariffs and quotas on all the solar panels coming in from overseas. They say it would level the playing field.
TIM BRIGHTBILL: These are the last two surviving companies.
PROFITA: Tim Brightbill is the lawyer representing SolarWorld in the case. He blames Chinese subsidies for overproduction. And he says without tariffs, what's left of solar manufacturing in the U.S. could disappear.
BRIGHTBILL: We documented more than 30 U.S. solar cell and module manufacturers who were driven out of business over the last five years.
PROFITA: A few weeks ago, the Trade Commission ruled in SolarWorld's favor, and Clason got called back to work.
CLASON: On my caller ID, I saw my lead man's name. And I went, wow, what's - you know, what's he want? And he said that they were ramping up again. And was I going to be interested in coming back? And I said, yeah, absolutely.
PROFITA: With the possibility of tariffs helping SolarWorld compete with imports, the company plans to rehire 200 workers by May.
GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: I'm Grace Hood with Colorado Public Radio. Here, the prospect of those tariffs is having a very different impact. The vast majority of solar jobs in the U.S. industry are not from making solar panels but installing them. Other companies make wires, batteries and electrical equipment. Chad Parsons is with Ecolibrium Solar, which makes racking for panels. He's noticed fewer orders.
CHAD PARSONS: I think the biggest challenge for us is not understanding what's going to happen, what that remedy is going to be, which is causing our customers to be concerned, to pull back on their orders.
HOOD: Ecolibrium joined a protest letter to the Trade Commission. Dan Whitten with the Solar Energy Industries Association says most of the U.S. industry opposes tariffs on imported panels.
DAN WHITTEN: There'll be widespread job loss, certainly loss of tax revenue in communities where solar's going strong. And you know, we have to compete with natural gas and wind, and our competitive position's going to be hurt.
HOOD: At Namaste Solar's warehouse in Boulder, huge pallets of panels are lifted two stories into the air. Co-founder Blake Jones says all this uncertainty is pushing panel prices upwards. Namaste is stockpiling panels in case prices go up even more.
BLAKE JONES: For us, we're eating those costs.
HOOD: But he says eventually customers could pay more. Jones says he has 10 long-term larger projects stuck in limbo. Nobody knows where prices are headed.
JONES: I can't overstate how crazy and chaotic things are in the industry right now.
HOOD: This week, the International Trade Commission will offer its recommendations in the case. But President Trump will have the final decision on whether to impose any trade barriers and what kind. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood in Colorado.
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