Note: This story appears in the Saturday, Jan. 27 newspaper on Page A1.

Solar panel installation companies in Athens County and across the United States are not happy with a newly imposed tariff on imported solar panels.

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump approved a 30 percent tariff — a tax on certain imported or exported products — on solar cells and panels. The idea behind the tariff is to make business easier for domestic manufacturers of solar cells and modules, who have been “seriously injured” by cheaper imports, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

The tariff will stay at 30 percent for the first year before dropping 5 percent for each the following three years. It will also exempt 2.5 gigawatts of cells each year.

UpGrade Ohio, an Athens-based nonprofit organization that works to reduce energy use and increase renewable energy options in communities, has come out against the tariff.

“These tariffs will slow the installation work of American solar installers, who have used cheaper solar imports to create high-paying engineering and installation jobs,” stated Mathew Roberts, info and outreach director for UpGrade Ohio, in an email. “These tariffs are likely to accelerate Chinese solar-panel makers’ moves to other Asian countries, and perhaps across seas to American soil to avoid the import tariff.”

Though many leaders in the industry as well as local solar companies are disappointed with the tariff, many say it’s not as bad as they originally feared it would be.

Gary Easton, the owner of Appalachian Renewable Power in Stewart, said the tariff likely won’t help or seriously damage his business.

“It will add to the overall cost of systems by a small amount, but ultimately it’s not enough of a tariff to deter people from getting these systems,” he said.

Easton said the consensus among solar industry trade groups is “it’s not near as bad” as other ideas discussed over the last year. He said the uncertainty of what the impending government-imposed changes to the industry would be were causing potential solar investors to hesitate.

“There were all sorts of different iterations that would have been more detrimental,” he said.

And while some prices for solar panels may rise, Easton doesn’t think the price increase will be huge. Drake Chamberlin, owner of Amesville-based solar installation company Athens Electric, agrees with Easton.

Solar panel prices have dropped dramatically over the last several years as the industry has grown. According to Easton, a small increase won’t make a big impact for businesses like Easton’s and Chamberlin’s that primarily work on residential solar projects.

Those that may feel the harder effects of the tariff are companies that focus more on commercial and utility solar projects. One such company in Athens County is Dovetail Solar and Wind.

“This is not something we wanted to have happen at all,” said Alan Frasz, president and majority owner of Dovetail.

Frasz said some businesses may forgo installing solar systems if it takes them longer to save money. He added the tariff will likely add 10-20 cents per watt to the cost of the system, but noted the federal solar tax credit will at least help to partially reduce the price increase on solar panels.

Though the tariff may help American manufacturers, Frasz thinks it will only help in the short term. He said the American manufacturing of solar cells and panels have reduced so much over the last few years that those left won’t be able to meet the industry’s demands.

Another effort recently announced by the Trump Administration could also help American manufacturers. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Energy announced the “American Made Solar Prize” — a new competition aiming to incentivize the domestic solar industry by awarding $3 million to entrepreneurs who develop solar energy products. The goal of the competition is to “reassert American leadership in the solar marketplace.”

Roberts pointed out American solar manufacturing has been lagging behind other countries like China, the world’s biggest producer of solar energy by capacity, for quite some time. He doesn’t think that prize will make much of a difference.

“$3 million is a drop in the bucket, so it’s not going to create anything worthwhile,” he said. “That’s more of a showmanship move.”

Though Frasz thinks the tariff will make it harder to sell Dovetail’s services to some buyers, it won’t put the company out of business.

“The overall viability of solar is so compelling and the costs have come down so much overall that I think businesses and homeowners are still going to buy solar,” he said, adding that the tariff will “just slow it down.”

Easton thinks the decision to impose the tariff is just a show for President Trump, who campaigned on a message of prioritizing American interests. Easton said the Trump administration is “demonstrating where loyalties lie” with oil, gas and coal.

Chamberlin also thinks the Trump administration has ulterior motives with the tariff.

“Basically it’s part of an overall campaign against solar,” he said.

Frasz doesn’t think Trump is helping most Americans with the the tariff.

“In reality he’s hurting more Americans than he’s helping,” Frasz said.

A news release from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) estimates the decision to implement the tariff will cause the loss of roughly 23,000 American jobs in the $28 billion industry this year, including manufacturing, as well as the loss of billions of dollars in solar investments. There were 38,000 jobs in solar manufacturing in the U.S. at the end of 2016, according to the SEIA, but just 2,000 of those only focused on cells and panels while the rest made metal racking systems, high-tech inverters, machines that improved solar panel output and other related products.

The U.S. solar industry altogether employed more than 260,000 workers in 2016, according to SEIA.

UpGrade Ohio suggested another way to help the American solar manufacturing sector.

“If the Trump administration is serious about helping the U.S. solar manufacturing industry, then he should invest the funds collected from the tariffs into a government-supported factory(s) to manufacture American-made solar panels,” Roberts said. “Additionally, the administration can create robust incentives for utility-scale solar projects that source American-made equipment.

“With the decline of coal jobs in the Appalachian region, priority status should be designated to Appalachian communities that could benefit from new solar manufacturing, construction and installation work that could come from this type of federal initiative,” Roberts continued.

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