Clean Power

Published on February 12th, 2014 | by Peter Allen


Strange Bedfellows Of The Energy Industry

February 12th, 2014 by  

solar jobs US

The old saw goes that politics makes for strange bedfellows. Well, the same appears to be true in the battle over our energy future, judging by the looks of an exceptionally weird story that’s developing in the halls of the International Trade Commission. Here’s the rub:

SolarWorld is a struggling solar panel manufacturing company with a CEO who (literally) lives in an ivory tower while his empire crumbles beneath him. For the past few years, SolarWorld has been hemorrhaging stock value, employees, and goodwill in the renewable industry — particularly in the United States, where it has a plant in Hillsboro, Oregon. The only thing keeping the company afloat is a seemingly endless ability to file lawsuits against regulations that it believes are crippling their business model.

The SolarWorld argument centers around low-cost solar cells produced in China, which already face an import tariff. SolarWorld’s high-priced attorneys argue that tariffs should be expanded geographically to Taiwan, plus expanded vertically within the range of Chinese solar products. This, they argue, would create a level playing field for domestic solar panel producers and protect American jobs. It’s an ironic argument given that SolarWorld is based in Bonn, Germany, and traded on the German stock exchange.

But the argument would make some modicum of sense if the majority of solar jobs were actually in manufacturing. Instead, they’re in sales, development, and installation. Added to that, the number one factor in market penetration for solar energy is cost. A global fair price competition has lowered the cost of installing solar across America’s residential and commercial rooftops, which, in turn, has created more than 140,000 jobsand counting. This is not to mention that SolarWorld’s Oregon facility cannot possibly produce enough supply to meet growing demand. The fight over tariffs is basically an attempt by a rogue energy company to raise prices for consumers looking to join the solar revolution — all to protect their corporate profits. But who benefits from those profits?

Well, in 2010, SolarWorld entered into a joint venture called Qatar Solar Technologies – a shell renewable company owned by a state-backed foundation from, you guessed it, Qatar. Qatar Solar Technologies was supposed to develop a new solar manufacturing hub in the tiny but wealthy oil-producing state. Of course, like most renewable investments from big oil, this was likely more marketing than business strategy, softening the images of two embattled utilities. Flash forward to 2013, when Qatar Solar Technologies purchased what is purported to be a 30% stake in SolarWorld. This investment would appear to provide the only (are we sure about “only”) funding for SolarWorld’s attempts to disrupt its own industry.

But the truly weird thing is that nobody questions these facts. SolarWorld doesn’t deny its company’s European roots, nor its involvement with the Qatar Foundation — which, for its part, has never done anything of consequence other than investing in a nearly bankrupt German company. Instead, the two happily parade around hand-in-hand while spending a fortune on legal battles that could put tens of thousands of American jobs in jeopardy. But all the while they claim to be safeguarding those very same American jobs.

Is this just an attempt by a Middle East oil state to undermine renewable energy growth in the United States? The writing is certainly on the wall. But the truth may be even stranger than what we already know.

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About the Author

is an independent media strategist based in San José, CA. You can read his many musings on Twitter @pjallen2.

  • Don Osborn

    If you want US Solar jobs to keep growing, pray the new tariff case fails. Also, there are good and bad China modules. We only buy Tier 1 modules and the ones from China (ET Solar) have out performed our US made modules.

  • Rick Kargaard

    When comparing solar panels about two years ago, I found a review that compared solar panels by output. The lowest cost per watt, at the time, were manufactured in Canada. Is there any more recent data available. Chinese production may be low cost but some times it is cheap in another sense of the word. The best quality products usually come from North America or Europe.

    • Was that Canadian Solar? Because it actually manufactures a lot (most, I think) of its product in China.

      First Solar & SunPower are US companies consistently in the top 10 for module manufactures. They do excellent work, and they offer differentiated products — SunPower offers most efficient on the market, and First Solar leads in thin film.

      Definitely possible to survive/do well in N.A.

  • Solar Pioneer

    Your argument of poorly thought out conspiracies is just laughable.
    If you wanted to go back in history to Arco or Shell even the best example of BP taking over Zoltan Kiss Cad Tell manufacturing plant around 2000 and effectively killing that price breakthrough technology (that First Solar later rescued) fine I saw that personally.
    Your excuse of China usurping the dominant PV producer in 2009 the good old USA really just simply occurred because we were asleep at the switch and failed to put into place normal automation. Yes BP later again took over another promising Solarex and killed US production there and abandoned the solar business entirely and Astropower foundered months before they reached a turning point in production. Or Evergreen died after setting up Chinese Mfg. you have something to say.
    But saying we should abandon the laws on the books is just foolish, a trade case stands on facts and they fall where they may.

  • Sunpower seems to have been doing well the past few years….

  • Ronald Brakels

    Australia is a large installer of rooftop solar, our installation costs are much less than in the United States and we have next to no solar manufacturing ability. We import a lot of things from overseas and solar equipment is some of the most useful stuff. It’s a much more sound investment than importing oil and then burning it which is what we spend a lot of our money on.

    • Love this: “It’s a much more sound investment than importing oil and then burning it which is what we spend a lot of our money on.”

      And the whole comment.

      Ronald, I miss your writing. 🙁 😀

      • Ronald Brakels

        Okay, I have a Hawaiian themed engagement party to go to on Saturday and then since I don’t drink because I’m Australian I should be fresh enough to write you something on Sunday.

  • Will E

    In my opinion we must thank the Chinese to make Solar Panels affordable for all of us.
    Import tax must be stopped. In the EU and USA. How stupid is this policy.
    I have Chinese Solar on my roof and could pay for clean cheap energy thanks to the Chinese.. And I did thank them for that by mail.
    Thank the Chinese for affordable Solar Panels.

  • sault

    This theory concerning Qatar Solar is too clever by half. In all likelihood, what we’re seeing is the death spasms of a company that was poorly-run but managed to secure funding from a country that has so much money, they don’t even know what to do with it all and aren’t very good at making business decisions either. Additional solar tariffs have very little chance of passing, anyway.
    The BIGGEST threat to the U.S. solar industry currently is actually the sustained push by Koch-funded groups to mess with and ultimately gut renewable energy policy supports at the state-level. While I can’t say for sure if any Qatari money is also making its way through ALEC and into these astroturf campaigns against portfolio standards and net metering rates because of Citizens United, it is small potatoes compared to what domestic polluters shovel into the coffers of these efforts.

    • Word. One key reason TASC & TUSK stuff is being published here almost every day right now. Need ALEC, EEI, & partners to have as much success repealing net metering as they had with Renewable Energy Standards.

  • On balance, if things are allowed to just ‘drift’ there will be zero solar panel manufacturing in North America, Europe, or anywhere else. Only China has the massive state-subsidized capability to take over the planet’s solar panel market.

    And they will. If we let them. Who could blame them? If we could get away with it, we would too!

    Just like in the minutes prior to the Titanic sinking, one of the bridge staff was fervently advising to slow down, take stock of the then-present situation, and work out a new plan — SolarWorld is urging the U.S. and Europe to do the same.

    Myself, I don’t care if China produces every single solar panel for the next 50 years. The question is; Do you?

    Cheers, JBS

    • Thanks. Agree with you. And that these Chinese neighbors (“the new China” in manufacturing) shouldn’t be blocked or fined for having low-cost labor. Suck it up & move on.

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