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From U.S. Highway 50, rows of metal frames ready for solar panels sit as part of a massive solar array in northern Montrose County near the border with Delta County. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado solar projects big and small are getting delayed into 2023, threatening jobs and clean energy progress, after federal officials agreed to probe a California company’s complaint that Asian companies avoid tariffs and dump cheap solar panels in the U.S., industry leaders said.

The supply of solar panels for home or utility-scale projects has dried up, and those that are left have shot up in price, because distributors fear the U.S. Commerce Department investigation will leave them on the hook for tariffs of up to 250% of original prices, solar company officials said this week. 

Most solar panels installed in the U.S. are imported, and trade disputes tend to pit a tiny number of remaining U.S. manufacturers against a much larger domestic network of distributors, installers, utilities and energy development companies. Colorado solar leaders are asking the congressional delegation to intervene and stabilize the market for solar installations, needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels that cause global warming. 

The probe is “effectively a freeze on the market, almost instantaneously,” said Eliot Abel, co-owner of Namaste Solar, Colorado’s largest installer of residential and small commercial solar projects, with 200 employees.

“There will be legit layoffs because people won’t be able to build projects,” said Mike Kruger, executive director of the trade group Colorado Solar and Storage Association. “Congress could fix this tomorrow by saying, ‘You know what? We’re done.’”

Community solar garden developer SunShare is putting off projects into next year and expects the situation to get much worse as panel supplies tighten even further, CEO David Amster-Olszewski said. On one project under contract, he said, “my head of construction got a call from our panel supplier. Saying that they want to renegotiate the prices.”

“We need to be putting as much solar in the ground as possible,” Amster-Olszewski said. “And these are unnatural disasters and unnecessary roadblocks. They’re not helping taxpayers. They’re not helping jobs, because when we push projects off, we’re not hiring contractors.”

New disruptions in solar panel supplies mean Colorado companies must work even harder to find panels in a dwindling pipeline.

Colorado-based Atlasta Solar Center doesn’t buy solar panels from Chinese manufacturers, but the company is still facing supply chain issues. A shipment directly from the Indian manufacturer Vikram Solar, which cost three to four times more than in the past, was delayed from April to June. Co-owner Lou Villaire has been scrambling to buy leftover solar panels from large-scale projects, but he’s still had to delay installations for his customers.

“It’s definitely creating problems,” Villaire said. “It is just not good in general, for customers or for businesses.”

Here’s what caused the solar market panic

Auxin Solar, based in San Jose, California, launched the solar market panic in February when it asked the Commerce Department to investigate whether manufacturers in other Asian countries were circumventing anti-dumping tariffs imposed on China. The accusation is that panel makers in Vietnam, Thailand and other countries are simply buying the same unfairly priced parts from China, then packaging and shipping them to skirt the duties that can range up to 250%. 

When the Commerce Department announced March 28 it had agreed to investigate, solar distributors had no idea how to price their panels, Colorado industry leaders say, and the market froze. Big solar developers that buy panels directly from factories either can’t buy panels, or have no cost certainty on what they order, Kruger said. 

If the cost of solar “modules” goes up 150% from a tariff after winning a job bid at a lower price, Kruger said, “You’re a damn fool to build that project.”

 “If my rooftop guys can’t install, or NextEra Energy can’t do their big projects down in Pueblo County and lay people off,” he said, “we’re not winning.” 

A U.S. Commerce department spokesman said in a statement: “U.S. anti-dumping and countervailing duty laws were written to be completely removed from political considerations. This process is transparent, internationally accepted, and has been the law of the land since 1930.”

The office will “conduct an open and transparent investigation to determine whether circumvention is occurring. Moreover, there has been no determination made, one way or the other, on the merits, and no additional duties will be imposed at this time.”

Industry leaders not involved in manufacturing call that a decision by “career bureaucrats” insulated from how the market actually works. Three-quarters of solar companies surveyed by the national industry association said they already had solar module orders canceled or delayed after the probe was announced. The Solar Energy Industries Association, or SEIA, said it had asked 200 companies for responses. 

Tariff uncertainty and other supply chain arguments kept some new solar systems from being built in 2021, SEIA said. About 17 gigawatts of solar capacity was added last year, but that was 3 GW less than forecast, and construction slowed noticeably in the fourth quarter after a new round of tariff arguments. 

Some of the Colorado delegation to the U.S. Senate and House has weighed in on behalf of the distributors and developers. “Expanded tariffs on products from these countries would threaten thousands of American solar jobs,” according to a letter sent in March to the Commerce Department by Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and other senators.

The letter asked the department to “carefully consider” the manufacturer’s demand for a probe, especially since the Commerce Department rejected three similar anonymous petitions in November. 

Gov. Jared Polis’ office shared a letter he sent in September, before a new round of tariffs were imposed, warning that new trade restrictions “could have devastating impacts to the growth of solar in Colorado” and across the country.

“The rapid scaling of solar in the United States is a core component of our nation’s future,” Polis wrote, and “anything done in the immediate term to undermine large-scale solar deployment serves as a potential threat to the entire system and industry.” 

Tariffs and tariff probes now cover 80% of the panels used in the U.S., Namaste’s Abel said. No business can operate when their primary materials can’t be priced, and that pain comes after devastating work shutdowns during the pandemic, he said. 

“What’s going to happen is you’re just going to cause pain on existing companies, independent companies like ours across the country that are trying to install solar for their customers that are trying to help reach our climate goals,” Abel said. “So for a goal that is probably ‘How do we create more manufacturing jobs in the U.S.,’ ironically, the effect will be the exact opposite of that. It will cause job losses.”

Asked if Namaste will lose jobs, Abel said, “we are already at risk of that, just by the opening of the investigation. And if it continues, we’ll be in the same boat as everyone else. When you don’t have projects, and you don’t have revenue coming into the company, what choice do you have?”

Email: Twitter: @mgfleming12

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...