Trump's new solar tariffs could kill 23,000 US jobs

The White House applied a 30 percent levy on all imported solar panels.

Boston Globe via Getty Images

As expected, US President Donald Trump has imposed a 30 percent tariff on solar cells imported into the US, mainly from Asia, a move that could bring the booming residential solar industry to a screeching halt. The levies are less than those requested by the US solar cell manufacturers that brought the dispute to US regulators to begin with. However, they were vehemently opposed by Tesla and other large players in the US solar energy industry, who say they will wipe out high-paying jobs in a promising new sector of the economy.

"This decision will cause roughly 23,000 American jobs to be lost this year, including many in manufacturing, and will cancel of billions of dollars in investments in the U.S. economy," said the Solar Energy Industry Association in a tweet. "It boggles my mind that this president -- any president, really -- would voluntarily choose to damage one of the fastest-growing segments of our economy," added Standard Solar's Tony Clifford.

The White House, however, said it would be good for America. "The President's action makes clear again that the Trump Administration will always defend American workers, farmers, ranchers, and businesses," said US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer. SolarWorld said it is "hopeful" the tariffs will provide relief to US manufacturers, and Suniva thanked Trump for "holding China and its proxies accountable," and wants negotiations to permanently settle matters.

The dispute was first brought to the US International Trade Commission (ITC) by Suniva, a majority Chinese-owned bankrupt US solar panel manufacturer and the US unit of Germany's SolarWorld AG. The companies sought an import duty of 32 cents a watt for solar panels produced outside the US, three times what Trump actually imposed. The US ITC, by contrast, recommended a slightly stiffer 35 percent tariff, and the US solar industry expected something lower.

The first 2.5GW of imported solar cells will avoid the tariff to reduce the impact on the domestic solar industry. The decision may not impact Tesla's Solar Roof and other new panels, which are manufactured in Buffalo, NY.

Not surprisingly, environmentalists were disappointed with the news. "This reckless decision will threaten tens of thousands of American jobs and hurt our climate," said Howard Crystal with the Center for Biological Diversity. "If Trump really wants to put America first, he should reduce our reliance on polluting energy sources that fuel climate change. Instead, this profoundly political move will make solar power more expensive for everyday Americans while propping up two failing, foreign-owned companies."

Up to 374,000 folks work in the US solar industry, but the bulk of those work in the installation sector -- only around 38,000 people work in manufacturing. It's estimated that the tariffs will raise the cost of major solar projects up to 10 percent pricier and home installations around 5 to 7 percent. While that doesn't sound like much, the industry runs on tight margins, so the impact could be significant. It's expected that China and other nations will appeal the decision to the World Trade Commission.