After several years of work, Ryan Sheehy’s company was ready to put money down this spring on the nearly 9,600 solar panels it needs for a community solar project in Ontario, Oregon.
The Verde Light Power Project is a new type of solar development in Oregon that will allow residents to purchase locally generated solar power from the utility company, rather than installing panels directly on their homes or offices.
Sheehy said his company, Enterprise-based Fleet Development, could typically count on ordering solar panels and having those orders fulfilled — especially for a relatively small project like Verde. He was surprised when he called the distributor to learn that his order for the project had been canceled.
“The rug got pulled out from underneath us,” Sheehy said. “It was totally unexpected.”
Sheehy is one of many in Oregon’s solar industry feeling the effects of a federal trade investigation into overseas manufacturers.
The U.S. Department of Commerce announced in March that it was investigating whether Chinese companies were funneling solar panel parts through Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam in order to avoid tariffs imposed by the past three presidential administrations.
If the Commerce Department finds those panels are indeed subject to tariffs, those duties could be retroactively applied to panels purchased after the start of the investigation.
The threat of retroactive tariffs effectively shut down the vast majority of solar panel imports, causing a severe shortage.
“The fines that might be imposed are upon the solar module manufacturers,” said Mark Farrell, Oregon sales manager for A&R Solar. “That’s why they’re pulling products from the U.S. They’re turning ships around or redesignating them.”
The four countries under investigation supply about 80% of the solar panels imported by the U.S., according to the American Clean Power Association.
“It’s really just thrown a ton of chaos and uncertainty into the market,” said Mike August, branch manager for solar distributor CED Greentech’s Portland and Bend markets. “Until there’s any sort of nod or signal or formal response saying what the tariff will be or might be, a lot of folks are just hesitating to bring any material in at all.”
That’s brought hundreds of projects across the country to a halt, including in Oregon.
‘A lot of things are very uncertain right now’
Solar projects in Oregon range from rooftop panels to utility-scale projects that can power thousands of homes.
Angela Crowley-Koch, executive director of the Oregon Solar and Storage Industries Association, said the investigation has been especially challenging for large projects. Cost increases of 25% or 50% on solar panels make a major difference for a project requiring thousands or even millions of panels.
She added that the impacts could spread to households, small businesses or schools that either can’t find panels or don’t want to pay more.
“A lot of things are very uncertain right now,” Crowley-Koch said. “So it’s causing a lot of stress in the solar market.”
The trade investigation could last months, which threatens solar projects scheduled to be completed, state and federal climate goals contingent on solar development, and thousands of jobs in the industry.
Several federal lawmakers and solar workers have urged the Commerce Department to move swiftly.
“This is going to have long-standing implications,” said Katie Martin, construction manager for Elemental Energy in Portland. “Just because we resolve this tomorrow does not mean there are ships at the port with solar panels in them.”
Sheehy said he scrambled to find the solar panels needed to finish construction on the Verde Light Power Project in Ontario. He said it’s important to finish by the end of the year when the federal solar investment tax credit will decrease.
He eventually located panels on the East Coast, but the markup was too steep to justify the purchase.
“It’s an $8 million project,” Sheehy said. “And [it’s] just stopped in its tracks.”
His company now expects to complete the Verde Light Power Project in 2023.