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U.S. solar industry fears massive job losses if import restrictions go into effect

The White House is considering enacting new limits on imports in response to a September statement by the U.S. International Trade Commission that cheap imports are harming the U.S. solar-panel industry. But solar companies inside and outside the United States warn that these restrictions could backfire and cause thousands of solar-energy jobs to disappear and could stifle clean energy development.

The trade commission’s report did not attribute all solar-panel imports with undercutting U.S. panel makers. It found that the harm to U.S. companies was arising from imports from several countries, including Mexico, China, and South Korea, with which the United States has free-trade agreements.

It found no harm to U.S. jobs from imports from Singapore, nor from Australia or Canada. Steve O’Neil, chief executive of the Singapore-based solar-panel maker REC, said that he is watching the issue closely and hopes that President Trump will thus exempt Singapore-based companies from the restrictions.

“We’re certainly paying a lot of attention to it. We will know more once the Trump administration makes their final ruling,” said O’Neil.

O’Neil explained that Asia as a whole accounts for more than 90% of the world’s solar panel-making capacity; China alone is 70%. China and South Korea both produce and ship solar panels to U.S. markets at low prices that their American rivals can scarcely match—productions costs in the United States are higher due to limited raw materials and infrastructure, and several U.S. solar makers have consequently been driven to bankruptcy in the last few years, O’Neil said.

O’Neil said that REC is researching innovations that could make solar energy more cost-effective. But he noted that the company sells more than half of its panels in the United States, so U.S. import restrictions would significantly cut into its available funds for research.

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