Trade agency should listen to Congress on solar case

Two solar companies asking the federal government to get directly involved in the market would have everyone believe that if the U.S. erects the trade barriers it is seeking, American solar manufacturing would rise and all would be well. What the companies, Suniva and SolarWorld, don’t say is that if their trade petition is successful, many American solar manufacturers, my company included, will be seriously harmed, and far more jobs will be lost than gained. 

A bipartisan group of 16 senators and 53 members of the House understand this and recently urged the U.S. International Trade Commission to reject the companies’ bid for a tariff on solar imports. The 69 members, led by Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisKey GOP senator says ‘no question’ Russia is meddling in U.S. affairs GOP Senator: 'Very inappropriate' for Trump to discuss allowing Russia to question US citizens Anti-Trump protesters hold candlelight vigil by White House MORE (R-N.C.) and Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichCNN congressional correspondent talks about her early love of trolls and family Overnight Energy: DNC to reject fossil fuel donations | Regulators see no security risk in coal plant closures | Senate committee rejects Trump EPA, Interior budgets Energy commission sees no national security risk from coal plant closures MORE (D-N.M.), and Reps. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), Pat Meehan (R-Pa.) and Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), include those who support free trade, want more domestic manufacturing, oppose government market manipulation, are hawkish on the budget, and want the U.S. to lead globally on clean energy technology.

Far more solar manufacturers are against Suniva than are with it. Last month, I joined 26 fellow manufacturers, who employ more than 5,700 workers, in sending a letter to the ITC, urging it to oppose the petition. And the reason is simple: trade barriers will do heavy damage to domestic solar manufacturers, too. 

Today, there are more than 600 facilities in the United States that build things for the solar industry. Our companies make steel and polysilicon, inverters and trackers, cells and panels, and racking and mounting systems. Like the rest of the solar industry, our company is adding jobs.

American solar cell and panel manufacturers like Suniva and SolarWorld now employ less than 1,000 people. That is less than 3 percent of the 38,000 American solar manufacturing workers we have today.

If the ITC sides with these two companies, solar costs will double and that will hurt the entire industry. The solar industry will lose 88,000 jobs next year alone, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association — more than one-third of our 260,000 workforce. Billions of dollars in private investment will be washed away.

My company, Schletter, employs 200 people and manufactures solar mounting systems for everything from the big, utility-scale solar farms and commercial buildings to your average home. We had the foresight to serve all sectors in this booming industry, we innovated, and we competed.

It’s hard to quantify exactly what this trade case could do to us, but I could see this cutting our business by half at least.

Our headquarters, in Shelby, N.C., has state-of-the-art machinery capable of a high level of production capacities. Shelby is a rural town with a population of 20,000. It was decimated when the textiles industry left and it is going through a revival, thanks to companies such as Schletter.

We source nearly all of our materials from U.S. manufacturers and will buy 60 million pounds of American steel in 2017, up from 45 million pounds the year before. If you overlap our jobs, with the processing plant and steel mill jobs related to our industry, and those jobs can circle out in the supply chain layers and layers, the jobs affected by our industry are significant.

The bottom line: if these two companies get their way, manufacturers will lose business and many times more jobs than those temporarily gained by Suniva and SolarWorld. The U.S. government will be helping companies that failed to keep up with the fast-paced growth of our industry while killing far more domestic manufacturing and other jobs. 

I hope the ITC sees the petition for what it is: an attempt by failing companies and their creditors to save a bankrupt venture.

I urge the ITC to look at the facts, listen to the members of Congress and do what's best for our economy by allowing the market to work and solar to continue to be the great American success story that it is. 

Russell Schmit is the CEO of Schletter, Inc., a solar manufacturer based in Shelby, N.C.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.