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Who Wins And Loses From Tariff Placed On Solar Imports

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The fastest growing occupation in the U.S. right now is solar panel installation, but maybe not for long. This week, President Trump signed off on a 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels, and the White House says it's meant to protect U.S. manufacturers from cheap imports, mainly from Asia. But industry watchers say the move will actually slow down the growth of the U.S. solar market.

To talk about all of this, we're joined by Brian Eckhouse. He covers the solar industry for Bloomberg. Thanks for joining us today.

BRIAN ECKHOUSE: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: OK, let's start with who wins with this new tariff. Are there even that many U.S. manufacturers who are going to benefit here?

ECKHOUSE: Very few, and one of the reasons is there are very few solar manufacturers in the U.S.

CHANG: Because of all the competition?

ECKHOUSE: Because all the competition. You go through a list of the biggest manufacturers. The vast majority of them are Asian. It takes a while to get down to one that's actually a U.S.-based company. In terms companies that will benefit, I think first and foremost, you have First Solar.

CHANG: First Solar - that's the name.

ECKHOUSE: Yes.

CHANG: OK.

ECKHOUSE: They have a technology that basically exempted from the tariff imposed by Trump on Monday. And they've got a plant in Ohio. They're in a very good spot. Other companies - Tesla last year opened with Panasonic a gigafactory in upstate New York in Buffalo. And while it won't account for all of their panels and all of their cells, it will count for a lot of them.

CHANG: And do I understand correctly? Some of the U.S. space companies - not Tesla, of course - some of them are actually foreign-owned. That's kind of an interesting twist here.

ECKHOUSE: It is. The two main companies that drove the tariff push, Suniva and SolarWorld Americas, are both majority owned by foreign companies. Suniva, interestingly, is owned by a Chinese company. And SolarWorld is owned by an insolvent German manufacturer, SolarWorld AG.

CHANG: So from what I understand, solar jobs have risen because solar installations have soared, and a big reason for that has been the dropping prices of these panels. A lot of the jobs that were getting created were blue-collar jobs in the past. Will this tariff end up hurting job growth?

ECKHOUSE: From the point of view of the solar industry, yes. The tariffs imposed on Monday was far from the worst-case scenario. At some points, the leading solar trade group said it might be 80,000 or more jobs lost. On Monday, they said maybe 23,000 - a big number, but not as big as it could've been.

CHANG: And what about customers, people who have been enjoying the dropping prices of solar panels the last few years? I mean, I assume this tariff means customers in the U.S. will be paying more for solar panels, right?

ECKHOUSE: If you have solar already, you're probably OK. You've got a long-term contract or you own the panels. But if you're a potential new customer...

CHANG: Yeah.

ECKHOUSE: You are looking at higher costs.

CHANG: Right.

ECKHOUSE: It might be as little as 4 percent, given how modest the tariffs ultimately were.

CHANG: And what about utility companies? I mean, they've been under pressure by state governments to increase the use of renewable energy, but if the price of solar installation rises for utility companies, who would want to invest in, like, a massive solar farm?

ECKHOUSE: It comes down to whatever the price of solar is today or tomorrow versus the cost of a new gas-fired plant or a new wind plant or other technologies. If the rise of solar is very, very modest, solar might be the most compelling way to go, still. And in parts of the country - the Southwest, probably, maybe in Massachusetts and New Jersey - states that have, you know, pretty substantial subsidy regimes - it might negate that.

CHANG: All right, Brian Eckhouse of Bloomberg, thank you.

ECKHOUSE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUNA SONG, "23 MINUTES IN BRUSSELS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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