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Federal Decision Could Hurt Vermont's Solar Industry And Threaten Jobs

A federal decision made Friday could drastically drive up the cost of solar panels and threaten energy jobs in Vermont. 

The U.S. International Trade Commission concluded that a flood of inexpensive foreign solar panels is hurting U.S. manufacturers, specifically the two bankrupt U.S. companies who filed suit earlier this year: Suniva and the U.S. unit of SolarWorld, a bankrupt German panel manufacturer.

The ITC ruling opens the door for President Donald Trump to impose tariffs on foreign-produced solar panels. But the commission won't issue its official recommendations to the president until November. 

"Today's decision was simply that they found injury to those two companies," says Emily McManamy of SunCommon, Vermont's leading residential solar installer. "It was a very low bar to establish injury, so we're not surprised by today's decision,  but we are discouraged."

McManamy says a tariff could drive up home installation costs by $2,000 or $3,000, and this could significantly slow demand for solar development in Vermont.

"We need solar to be accessible,  affordable, easy," says McManamy. "So anything that gets in the way of that forward progress, and slows down that shift away from fossil fuels and toward clean renewable energy is a step in the wrong direction."

McManamy says that in advance of Friday's decision, SunCommon has already stockpiled extra solar panels to prepare for a possible price spike.

Solar companies across the country share these concerns that a tariff on foreign panels, which supply most of the market, would significantly hurt the growing energy industry.

Interestingly, that includes Suniva’s majority owner, Shunfeng International Clean Energy Ltd., who also opposes Suniva's suit, according to Bloomberg News.

The U.S. International Trade Commission must send President Trump its recommendations in November. Trump has until January to rule.

Until the scope of the potential tariff becomes clear, the solar industry will continue to operate in a state of limbo.

Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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