Photographer: James MacDonald/Bloomberg

U.S. Trade Dispute Scaring Companies From Buying Solar Power

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  • Uncertainty over prices may lead companies to favor wind power
  • Trump will decide whether to impose tariffs on solar imports

A trade dispute over solar imports has stalled clean-energy projects across the U.S.

With the looming prospect of tariffs driving up the price of panels, utilities and businesses are holding off on signing deals to buy solar power. It may be months before they get more clarity.

In the meantime, “projects are on hold,” Yumin Liu, president of Canadian Solar Inc.’s Recurrent Energy development unit, said in an interview at Infocast’s Solar Connect conference in San Diego. Recurrent has multiple projects that were initially scheduled to begin commercial operations next year. Now it’s not clear if that will happen on time.

“It’s uncertain,” Liu said. “Many companies are in the same boat.”

The trade case dates to an April complaint from Suniva Inc., a bankrupt solar manufacturer based in Georgia. The U.S. International Trade Commission ruled last month that the U.S. industry has been harmed by a flood of cheap imports, and President Donald Trump will get to decide whether to impose tariffs.

With solar development slowing, some corporate buyers may turn instead to wind farms. Such contracts with businesses have been a significant driver of growth for both types of clean energy in the U.S.

“Solar developers anticipating to grow by signing contracts with corporations and utilities are currently in a standstill,” Nathan Serota, a New York-based analyst at BNEF, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Wind developers don’t have that problem.”

While corporate sales of wind usually exceed solar power, the gap was starting to narrow. That trend is now reversing. While wind deals exceeded solar by about 40 percent last year, this year through mid-September businesses have signed contracts to buy almost three times as much wind power as solar, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“Wind projects are generally larger,” Kyle Harrison, a New York-based analyst at BNEF said in an email, “which makes it easier for corporations to reach their renewable-energy targets.”

There’s another reason solar may slow this year. On Friday, the U.S. Energy Department proposed a rule that would boost nuclear and coal power -- potentially at the expense of renewables.

“The market just got a one-two punch,” said Andrew Redinger, a managing director at KeyCorp, “Even if neither happens, the uncertainty during the interim will lead to stoppage. People don’t like uncertainty.”

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