Korean solar PV manufacturer Hanwha Q CELLS has announced it will build a PV module manufacturing plant in Georgia, US, with a planned capacity expected to “exceed 1.6” gigawatts (GW).
Announced on Wednesday, Hanwha Q CELLS Korea explained that it would begin constructing a solar module production facility in Georgia sometime this year, for completion in 2019, in an effort to maintain its “leading market position in the US by delivering high-quality solar modules through local U.S. production.” The company was unwilling to specify the factory’s nameplate capacity, it confirmed it would “exceed 1.6 GW per year” and, in a statement provided to PV Tech, explained that the new facility will be module assembly only.
The move is in obvious direct response to US President Donald Trump’s decision to impose a 30% tariff on all imported solar cells and modules, announced back in January. The result of the new tariff has been to make imported cells unproductive, but there is still demand for solar in the US — as acknowledged by the 2.5 GW quota for tariff-free cells which can be imported.
The United States has been one of the most important destinations for Hanwha Q CELLS solar products, and “The new manufacturing fab is testament to Hanwha Q CELLS Korea’s commitment to the U.S. market, in spite of the recently imposed trade barriers … Upon commencement of manufacturing activities in the US. fab, Hanwha Q CELLS Korea will supply high quality PERC modules to the roof-top and ground-mounted segments in the US.”
More importantly, however, is how the US Administration reacts to this and similar decisions. In early April, US-based NextEra Energy signed one of the largest solar panel supply deals in history with Chinese manufacturer JinkoSolar for 2,750 megawatts (MW), which came alongside a separate move in which JinkoSolar will open its first US manufacturing facility in Jacksonville, Florida.
From a certain point of view, it might appear as if Donald Trump’s decision to impose tariffs is paying off. However, the reality is not so simply understood. Even putting aside the predicted 23,000 American solar jobs which will be lost and the fact that the tariff is likely to reduce US solar installations by 11% over the next five years, the global solar industry is not necessarily looking to improve the US economy, and it reflects another trade war seen decades ago.
“Asia’s solar manufacturers have spent the past decade dodging various tariffs, duties and local content laws that have threatened their industry dominance,” explained Hugh Bromley, the Lead Analyst for North America Solar and Distributed Generation at Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), who spoke with me via email. “We’re seeing that play out again as ‘transplant’ module factories are announced in the US following the imposition of tariffs in February. While the Trump administration will claim this as a win, America’s victory is modest. The profits will flow offshore, and the highly-automated production lines will bring few jobs to the communities luring manufacturers using tax breaks. Only one American-owned solar company — First Solar — has announced new manufacturing capacity since the tariffs were introduced. That facility will be setting a new standard in factory automation.”
First Solar, the leading US solar manufacturer, announced its first-quarter earnings earlier this month, boasting increased sales of $567 million and the commencement of Series 6 module production in April which, in turn, led to the company’s announcement of a new solar manufacturing plant in Perrysburg, Ohio.
“Strong demand in the US for advanced solar technology, along with recent changes in US corporate tax policies, have encouraged our decision to grow First Solar’s US production operations,” said Mike Koralewski, First Solar’s Senior Vice President of Global Manufacturing, at the time. “State and local officials and JobsOhio have also worked with us to create a business-friendly environment that supported our objectives. These factors, combined with our own economies of scale in high tech manufacturing, make expanding US operations an attractive, win-win opportunity.”
So while there might be occasional bright spots for the US solar industry, we’ve nevertheless seen what happens when these trade wars play out in this manner.
“The solar industry is employing the tactics of Japanese auto manufacturers in the 1980s,” Hugh Bromley explained. “Following the imposition of import quotas in 1981 – a compromise to avoid tariffs – Japanese automakers fast-tracked development of ‘transplant’ factories on U.S. soil. Prices of Japanese and America vehicles increased – as have module prices – by around 50% in the years following.
“The US has the production capacity to meet less than 20% of domestic demand for solar panels. Following a wave of recent factory announcements, it’s feasible that over half of panels installed in the US in the early 2020’s will have been made in America.”