Uncertain forecast for NJ solar industry in wake of federal tariffs

With such a reliable main source, the solar industry has had a hard time growing in New Jersey. The industry has had as many dark days as sunny, and new tariffs imposed by the Trump administration promise to bring more unpredictability to an industry that, ironically, has a new friend in Trenton.

“I remain, and we remain, committed to a new energy master plan, one that we have not had for a long time in this state, that would see our state achieve 100 percent clean energy by the year 2050,” said Gov. Phil Murphy recently.

But while the state’s disposition is sunny, some say the federal government is throwing shade at the industry by imposing a 30 percent tariff on imports of solar panels, or modules. The president says the Chinese have been dumping cheap solar panels on the U.S. market for years.

“On the solar panels, he left an enormous amount of latitude in that decision where we actually have a business which is making the panels, not the actual cells, the cells can be imported. We’re protecting our panel makers because we do make panels here in the United States and we should continue to make panels and hire more workers in the United States,” described White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn after the tariffs were announced.

Nicholas Campanella, CEO of Sun Pacific Holding, admits the tariffs will pinch a bit, since there aren’t many manufacturers in the United States, and the prices per panel will definitely go up, especially for large-scale installations. But, on the other hand, he thinks the tariffs will have the intended affect, that is to spur production, stateside.

“Last year, the U.S. bought about 3.7 billion solar panels in the first 10 months, which is probably about 90 percent of them came from Asia, so by him creating this tariff, it kind of creates a level playing field,” said Campanella. “It’s not necessarily trying to hurt the industry or hurt the market, but I think it’s creating a level playing field with foreign imports versus what we’re manufacturing here in the U.S.”

That’s not how Assemblyman John F. McKeon sees it. He called the tariffs “… nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to claim a victory for American manufacturing. In reality, it will have irreparable effects on the U.S. economy and deal a devastating blow to the renewable energy industry.”

Lyle Rawlings of the Northeast Solar Energy Industry Association says the tariffs are a feel-good measure that claims to advocate for domestic solar manufacturing jobs, there are about 2,000 in the country, but will actually end up having the reverse effect.

“Most of the jobs are in installation, sales, and design and things of that sort. So, even if we were to gain two or three thousand jobs in the module manufacturing, we’ll not only lose the other manufacturing jobs, but we’ll lose the bulk of the jobs, of which there are an estimated 260,000 around the country. So we’re estimate that 25,000 or 30,000 jobs will be lost as a result of this tariff,” asserted Rawlings who is also the president and CEO of Advanced Solar Products.

Ultimately, the market will dictate the winners and losers, but, tariffs aside, the industry is happy to be back in the conversation in the Garden State and the hope is that the new governor will spread sunshine around the entire renewable energy industry.