Solar Manufacturing in the US is Taking a Beating

December 13th, 2011

Several solar firms, calling themselves the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing (CASM), have filed a suit with the International Trade Commission (ITC) alleging that Chinese solar panel makers are dumping cheap solar panels on the US market.

The complaint filed by seven manufacturers has divided the US solar industry and resulted in another group, calling itself the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE), to form in response to CASM’s complaint. CASE claims that cheap Chinese panels make solar energy affordable in the US and creates rooftop installation and sales jobs.

The ITC may find US solar companies are in fact being injured by Chinese violations of free trade agreements. However, free trade isn’t the biggest problem facing solar manufacturing in the US. The biggest problem is that the US government hasn’t made a significant financial commitment to renewable energy or developed a long term strategy to make solar economically and environmentally sustainable.

A forward-thinking US policy committed to the economic and environmental sustainability of the solar industry would find ways to create business opportunities throughout the solar panels’ lifecycle, which would mean creating policies that support safe domestic mining, manufacturing, installation and recycling of solar panels.

The US is projected to be the largest solar market by 2012. It would seem that US policymakers across the political spectrum would get behind building capacity for US-based solar manufacturing. A compelling case can be made to support solar manufacturing for the purpose of addressing climate change, creating jobs, promoting energy independence and growing the economy.

In addition to being the largest solar customer, the US will also likely be one of the largest solar panel waste generators in the world. A commitment to long-term sustainability in the solar industry would include investing in recycling systems to handle the millions of tons of panels and create new jobs in recycling related industries when the panels are decommissioned.

Instead, policymakers are spending time obsessing over Solyndra. It’s important to determine what went wrong (if anything) with the Department of Energy (DOE) loan process – or if there is political favoritism in the DOE program. However, the congressional debate about Solyndra and the subsequent media coverage has supplanted all substantive discussion about the US long-term strategy for solar.

It’s hard to watch the US solar industry take such a beating. However, it’s not just cheap Chinese panels that are creating the problem. Some of the most serious blows to the industry are coming from our federal government.